“All Hail the New Founding Fathers.”
There’s been a long standing belief that the human race is violent in nature. That our instincts are killer and to ignore this instinct is the reason why there is so much hatred and greed and death in the world. That belief stands as the main basis for The Purge, a new film out in theatres today from Universal Pictures. Taking the idea of “what if we had a controlled pattern to release this aggression and give into this “killer instinct?”, the film examines what the effects would be on not just society but also human nature. When I first saw the trailer for The Purge, I was intrigued. I thougth this film had the potential to be the scarriest film of the year as long as they pulled no punches and played things as “real” as possible. After seeing the film, I can see that this was not the case.
The film is set in 2022 where the United States has been taken over by a series of multinational corporations known only as the “New Founding Fathers of America”, who in order to keep the population under control, have instituted an annual 12 hour period during which all criminal activity, including murder, becomes legal. This annual event is known as “The Purge”. The only rules during The Purge is that “Level 10 ranking Government Officials” must remain untouched and usage of “Class 4” weaponry and above is forbidden. During this, emergency services are suspended and all external calls are unanswered. The Purge is designed to serve as a catharsis for American citizens, giving them a chance to vent all negative emotions however they desire and express dark impulses. We follow James Sandin, played by Ethan Hawke, on his way home on the night of the Purge. He’s a wealthy man who’s recently come into money over the past few years selling security systems for this specific event. A family can buy a system for their home and have the security that during the Purge, their house will become a virtual fotress and no one will be able to get in or out. James and his family, while supporters of the Purge, do not actively partake in it. They choose to instead stay in their home together, locked up tight with one of James’ own security systems. But things are not perfect in their house. James’ daughter, Zoey (Adelaide Kane), is angry with her father due to the fact that he won’t let her see her boyfriend as he is 18 and she’s still in high school. James’ son, Charlie (Max Burkholder) is also not too happy, not specifically at his parents but in general. He’s begun to question the Purge and how some see it as a way to eliminate the poorer people who cannot pay for protection. So when he sees a man who’s hurt and bleeding on the street, his first instinct is to shut down the security system long enough to let this stranger into his home to protect him from those who are trying to hurt him, a group of young, rich kids who are big fans of purging. When this group realises that their prey has taken refuge in the Sandin’s home, they give James and his family an ultimatum: bring the bloody stranger outside and release him to them or they will break in and kill all of them.
The story uses a familliar plot that hinges on playing with the audience’s fear. It’s not an original idea but if played for it’s full emotional potential, it can make for a tense and frightening film. I wish someone would’ve explained the importance of tension to the makers of The Purge. The main problem with this film is that there is a complete lack of it. There’s a bit near the beginning. You can feel it as the minutes tick down before the Purge. There is a general unease in the storytelling. Once the Purge begins, all tension is lost for the most part. Any time an obstacle or a point of tension is introduced, it gets handled immediately. Any time a new question arises, the answer is just around the corner. To make matters worse, the film throws a great deal of unecessary plot points into the second act. The issues with Zoey’s boyfriend and an odd game of “hide and go seek” with the stranger lead to little payoff. It feels as though the filmmakers were afraid right from the beginning that their film might be seen as cliche, so they introduced other factors into the mix to make it seem different. Then, much like the tension, they quickly dismiss these plot points and re-focus on the original idea. It’s like a whirlwind of ideas sets down and then vanishes. There’s no time for anything to breath. With a running time of just 85 minutes, it’s no wonder. This film does not need all the extras. What it needs is a more effective delivery of the main story you’re trying to tell. As it stands, the characters seem more like charactures you would expect in a story like this, their motivations seeming more determined by necessity of getting to the end of the film instead of being living breathing characters we can actually care about. And if for some reason you can’t figure out the motivations of a certain character, don’t worry. They will literally tell you everything they are doing and why they’re doing it. Even if it doesn’t make any sense. Each character spells out everything that’s happening. There are no surprises and by the time we reach the 3rd act, the film takes on an almost comical tone. This tone was obviously not intentional but the audience I saw it with sure thought it was hilarious.
The acting is this film is surprisingly good as the actors did not have a lot to work with. Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey, who plays his wife, Mary, are quite believable as the well off couple at the heart of this story and with a better script, they might’ve been able to make a go at bringing us an interesting film. Sadly, the decisions their characters make defy logic for the most part and they become hard to “care” about. Rhys Wakefield, who plays the main antagonist for the piece, is delightfully evil and has probably the most entertaining scene in the movie when he delivers his ultimatum monologue to the Sandins. Unfortunately, his actions and abilities as the main “bad guy” don’t live up to this sinister introduction. The only real stand out performance that I can get behind is that of Edwin Hodge who plays the bloody stranger. His is the only character that makes any sense. His motivations are clear and Hodge does a great job of letting you feel everything he feels from just glances and body language. It seems that Hodge’s part was the only one that was not over-written and he benefits from this greatly.
In the end, it’s safe to say that The Purge is not the thriller it sets out to be. This is sad because it’s obvious that the building blocks were there to make a great film. Instead, a cliche heavy, over explained, logic hole-film 85 minutes is what we got. Attempts to present messages about “corporate control” and “class war” are boiled down to the simple statement of “killing is wrong.” I think that was covered in the Ten Commandments but thanks for this. This film wasn’t terrible but is dissappointing when you take into consideration what it could’ve been. The Purge opens today in theatres.
If you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!