Thursday, June 6, 2013

Review: "The Purge"

"The Purge" is a pretty dumb movie, but it goes about its business in a fashion that is not without intelligence and skill. It starts out with an allegorical premise, about a dystopian America where people are legally allowed to kill each other one night a year. But then it dives into familiar action/horror movie tropes while the audience spends the last half yelling at the people onscreen not to behave like total ijits.

Personally, I think writer/director James DeMonaco should've taken a more intellectual and dramatic approach, something like "Gattaca," which also happened to star Ethan Hawke (a frequent collaborator of DeMonaco's). This movie instead opts for boo-gotcha scares and fist-pumping takedowns of bad guys -- but at least it embraces this dumbed-down role instead of trying for a wishy-washy hybrid.

It's the year 2022, and the U.S. has been taken over by a political leadership that calls itself the New Founding Fathers. Their ethos is very heavy on religiosity, but it's more of an Old Testament version with lots of smiting and wrathful vengeance.

One night a year for 12 hours, all laws and public protection are suspended, and people are free to kill, maim and otherwise inflict their pent-up savagery on each other, without consequence. The idea is that while they talk a lot about God, the populace also recognizes its inner demons. Instead of confession, they let their sins out for one wanton night of orgiastic purging.

Most people barricade themselves in their homes and watch the action on television. James Sandin (Hawke) understands this, and makes a very nice living selling high-end security systems to wealthy types like himself. Wife Mary (Lena Headey) is also onboard, though their children are uncomfortable with the reasoning behind the mayhem.

Zoey (Adelaide Kane) is a pouty teen made poutier by the fact her dad disapproves of her older boyfriend (Tony Oller). Charlie (Max Burkholder) is morose and brainy, building a roving surveillance robot out of old toys that will come in handy later.

The Sandins are settling in for a comfortable night behind the protection of their steel-shielded doors when a homeless African-American man (Edwin Hodge) comes begging for mercy from the band of purgers chasing him. Soft-hearted Charlie shuts down the security and lets him in, and a brooding standoff ensues with his pursuers.

The purge crew is not the usual movie collection of illiterate rednecks, but well-heeled prep school types who see chasing down the dregs of society as not just their right, but a civic duty. They wear sinister Guy Fawkes masks, except for their charismatic leader (an excellent Rhys Wakefield), whose patriotic/pious fervor burns luridly brighter.

There are a lot of potential intriguing jumping-off points here, from the rich-vs.-poor underbelly of the purge system to the racial overtones that remain largely unspoken -- and I mean that literally; the black guy seeking sanctuary utters a total of about a dozen words.

But DeMonaco elbows these notions aside in favor of obvious but effective scare tactics. "The Purge" has an eerie claustrophobic feel, underlined by the director's tendency to keep his camera right up in people's faces. I lost count of the number of times somebody was about to die, their would-be killer leering over them with a gun or blade, and at the last second something intervenes.

There's a better movie to be made using this concept, but the one they did make isn't awful.

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