June 7, 2013



THE PURGE:  Watch It At Home – Dopey, Violent Allegory Nevertheless Packs a Punch

THE PURGE is heavy-handed, borderline reprehensible nonsense–but that’s not to say it doesn’t work.  James DeMonaco’s trim (85 minutes, including credits) thriller is set in 2022, when virtually all crime and unemployment has been wiped out in a newly-restored United States due to a single policy:  for a 12-hour period each year, from 7PM to 7AM, almost all laws are suspended.  Politicians can’t be killed, and believe it or not even in this context there’s some level of gun control (unspecified categories of weapons aren’t permitted–someone tell the NRA!), but beyond that, any crime up to and including murder is permissible and not punishable by law.  The idea is that what Dexter Morgan would call our dark passengers are sated for 364 1/2 days per year by allowing them to do their thing on that other night (the administration’s own slogan:  “release the beast”).

In practice, of course, the main victims of each year’s Purge are the poor, because the well-off can afford to seal themselves off from the carnage.  (It’s not clear why the poor would accept this arrangement, or for that matter why they’d refrain from crime on the other 364 days of the year, but like much else in The Purge, it doesn’t bear thinking about.)  One beneficiary of all this is James Sandin (Ethan Hawke), who makes a nice living selling expensive security systems to his neighbors, enough so that he’s recently been able to add a new wing to his McMansion, which he shares with wife Mary (Lena Headey) and teen children Charlie (Max Burkholder, from Parenthood) and Zoey (Adelaide Kane).  When we meet the Sandins, they’re getting ready to lock down for the night and watch video feeds of the horrors outside (some of the neighbors are throwing a Purge party, although the Sandins aren’t invited, apparently because everyone’s noticed that James has been getting rich off their fear).  Sheets of steel ring down, locks are set, a token weapon is removed from the safe (just in case), and the clock starts running to 7AM.

The problems start quickly.  For one thing, Zoey has an older boyfriend of whom James disapproves, and the boyfriend decides this would be a good time to confront dad.  For another, soft-hearted nerdy Charlie sees a homeless black man shouting for help on the security cameras outside the house–and he decides to let the guy in.  Before long, a well-dressed preppy type (billed only as “Polite Stranger” and played by Rhys Wakefield as though he’s spent a lot of time watching both versions of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games) has shown up, with his band of masked marauders, to assure the Sandins that if they don’t give up their new guest, he and his friends will get into the house and butcher them all.  And James’s gleaming, state-of-the-art security system?  It may not be foolproof.

DeMonaco, whose first major film as director this is (he was the writer of The Negotiator and the Ethan Hawke remake of Assault On Precinct 13, among other scripts), does an effective job of tightening the screws during the movie’s first hour, swiftly setting the pieces in place that will put the Sandins’ lives in jeopardy.  The last half hour is more of a conventional movie bloodbath, with loud music and crashing sound effects telling us when to be scared, but he pulls the strings well enough and doesn’t dawdle on the most idiotic twists.  The movie is also meant to work on a double level of allegory:  as an tract about the evil of the 1% against the other 99 (the poor here are strictly victims, hunted for sport by the rich), and also with something to say about the bloodlust of the movie audience, who after all is being entertained by this slaughter much as the families at Purge time watch their TV coverage of the killings.  This part of the film is unsubtle to say the least, with thumping dialogue that hits every social-issue nail squarely on the head.

Nevertheless, The Purge works on its own disreputable terms.  Hawke is a long way from Before Midnight here, but a working indie actor has to pay the bills, and he was probably able to convince himself this particular exploitation item had something to say.  Headey, while certainly not getting any Cersei-level dialogue, gets to give Mary a little Lannister-esque steel before the movie is over.  Nathan Whitehead’s score delivers the requisite musical undercurrents interspersed with screeching noise, Jacques Jouffret’s photography makes good use of darkness, and Peter Gvozdas’s editing doesn’t let the movie overstay its welcome.  The Purge may not accomplish much of what of what it has in mind, but it manages to deliver enough for an hour and a half of cheap thrills.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."