Directed by James DeMonaco
Distributed by Universal Studios
Can a film still be considered a success if it manages to engage on a visceral level while failing to properly execute its thematic intentions? That’s the question posed to those who might consider viewing The Purge, a new film from Paranormal Activity producers Blumhouse Productions and writer/director James DeMonaco, the screenwriter responsible for Skinwalkers and the Assault on Precinct 13 remake. And it’s a necessary question for one to answer for themselves before deciding whether or not they’re willing to donate their time to this flick – because while the film fulfills its obligations as a thriller, it ultimately fails to live up to its interesting premise.
America, 2022. An opening card informs the audience that, nine short years from now, unemployment will be at 1% and nearly all crime will have been eradicated thanks to an annual event known as “The Purge”, a twelve-hour suspension of law and order that allows citizens to commit any crime they wish – including murder – with no penalties whatsoever. So, even as the poor and homeless are left at the mercies of those who prowl, hunt, and kill on this night, the wealthy and apathetic bar themselves inside their expensive homes with elaborate security systems to wait out the deadly festivities.
One such family is The Sandins: husband and father James (Hawke); wife/mother Mary (Headey); daughter Zoey (Kane); and son Charlie (Burkholder). On the night of The Purge, the Sandins have dinner as usual, chat and bicker a bit, then lock down their McMansion behind an impressive set of defenses (the same type of system James sells to consumers, and his fellow neighbors). However, an unknown threat from the inside, coupled with a would-be victim gaining entrance to their home, sends their evening into disarray and puts their lives in danger, eventually bringing them to the attention of a merry band of homicidal twentysomethings led by a strangely charming creep (Wakefield) who gives the Sandins an ultimatum: deliver up the man seeking shelter in their home, or run the risk of the group of maniacs laying siege to their house and annihilating everyone inside. What follows is a night of tough choices, bloodshed, and a fight for survival, as the Sandins find themselves face to face with the horrors they’d long ago shut out and ignored.
It’s a great premise, even with its implausible presentation, and one that might’ve made for one helluva film. Unfortunately, while the basic setup is more than intriguing, little is done to explore the story’s potentially incendiary subtext except in the most obvious and ham-fisted of ways. Worse still, with the exception of a few token moments throughout and a half-hearted, eleventh hour change of heart for one character to complete their rather weak arc, the fascinating concept the movie presents is set aside in favor of a rote home invasion tale – the likes of which have been seen many times before.
It’s a shame. The Purge represents not only the waste of a cool idea, but also the squandering of a great deal of talent – both in front of and behind the camera. The cast all put in great work (particularly Hawke, Headey, and the uber-creepy and charismatic Wakefield), and the film looks and sounds great thanks to Jacques Jouffret’s shadow-laden cinematography and Nathan Whitehead’s occasionally unnerving musical score. In addition, there are a few neat twists and shocks sprinkled throughout (though the latter are mostly lost within a sea of lame jump scares), along with some nicely executed setpieces.
Indeed, The Purge isn’t a terrible watch, it’s just unfulfilling. While it acts as a perfectly serviceable thriller, its presentation of an exciting idea that is never fully explored or paid off leaves one sullen by the start of its end credits, mourning the loss of a potentially great film that just never came to pass. Here’s hoping the inevitable sequel delves into the film’s themes in a smarter, more satisfying way.
Universal has nevertheless gifted the film with a wonderful presentation on Blu-ray, as the disc sports a beautiful image full of detail and impenetrable blacks. The DTS-HD 5.1 track is pretty great as well, creating an aural landscape that effectively draws viewers into the Sandin household. Sadly, there isn’t much in the way of bonus features here, only an eight-minute making-of doc that features DeMonaco and the cast discussing the film’s plot and its lofty (if unrealized) intentions. Pity as at the very least, an audio commentary with the director and cast might have made for an interesting listen.
While The Purge fails to live up to its potential, its few virtues keep it from being a complete failure. It’s hardly a success, but it might very well be worth a look for those with both an interest in its bleak world and eighty spare minutes to kill.
2 1/2 out of 5
1/2 out of 5