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Stanley Film Fest 2013 Review: ‘The Purge’ Leaves Little of Value Behind

By  · Published on May 3rd, 2013

When is a good old-fashioned home invasion movie not a good old-fashioned home invasion movie? When it sets itself in the near future and forgets to be all that good.

Welcome to The Purge.

It’s 2022, and the United States has finally solved its growing problem with violence and crime by making it legal. More precisely, it’s legal for a twelve hour period one night per year. Citizens are encouraged to stay safe in their secure homes, unless of course they care to vent their animalistic rage and partake in the annual event. The Sandin family feels safe behind their state of the art security shutters, but when their dumbass son has a crisis of conscience and lets an injured man in, all hell breaks loose.

James (Ethan Hawke) is a salesman for a security company, and this year has been his best on record with sales to each and every one of his neighbors of the very same system he uses. He and his wife Mary (Lena Headey) fully support the purge, but they also know that it’s not something that will ever touch them in their gated community.

Unfortunately for them, their two children lack an appreciation of how things work, leading to the unscheduled arrival of two outsiders. Zoey’s (Adelaide Kane) boyfriend has snuck in to make a case for being allowed to date her to her dad, and Charlie (Max Burkholder) lets a wounded homeless man in to save him from his pursuers. A large group of masked youths arrive on their doorstep demanding the man (Edwin Hodge), their rightful prey, be returned to them or else.

The premise here is pretty great, at least initially, as it’s a high concept idea with fantastic potential for both satire and/or commentary. Unfortunately writer/director James DeMonaco seems proud enough of himself for the basic idea and is unable or uninterested in bringing it beyond that.

We’re led to believe that the criminally-minded are perfectly content living crime-free 364 days per year, but we’re never told why. What’s to stop someone from committing evil deeds year round? The law? How’s that different from now? DeMonaco never says and instead simply implies that mankind’s necessary urges to be violent can be corralled into a single 12-hour period willingly. This is stupid.

Ultimately though, the fictional social setup is irrelevant as this is top to bottom a home invasion movie. It’s here that the movie finds more success as the eventual assault features a couple well done sequences. One in particular, a fight in the rec room between James and multiple intruders, is thrilling and beautifully choreographed. The buildup to the inevitable attack isn’t as exciting though as suspense is replaced with character idiocy. Charlie in particular begs to be killed off in some gruesome way thanks to his repeatedly poor decisions, but the rest of the family isn’t all that much brighter.

Questionable actions aside, the film’s core message is a jumble of abandoned points. There’s room here for a commentary on class and race divides, but DeMonaco feels content simply having the stranger be black and poor. He does nothing to actually examine the distinctions, and while no thriller needs further subtext, it’s clear this one believes it has some.

He fares slightly better on the topic of a violent America, but even then he falls short of actually saying anything aside from inferring that most of us, when given the legal opportunity, would happily feed our own bloodlust. One character even intones that participating in the purge is “our duty as Americans,” but as with the absence of info as to why crime doesn’t happen any other day of the year we also get very little background as to the country’s acceptance of this new holiday. Because odds are not everyone would be down with mass slaughter of the lower classes simply because the government made it legal. Right? Right?!

The Purge takes an interesting idea and squanders it within a generic thriller, but there are a few bits and pieces to appreciate here. DeMonaco knows how to put a picture together, and hopefully next time he’ll let someone else do the writing.

The Upside: Fight in the game room is a thing of beauty; somewhat interesting turn of events in third act

The Downside: Lacks necessary details on the purge itself; attempts at social commentary are half-baked; character actions are annoying, frustrating and dumb; seriously? the old fridge door scare again?

On the Side: The initial idea came from James DeMonaco’s wife who after a bout of road rage quipped that “Everyone should get one [kill] a year…”

The Purge invades theaters June 7th, 2013.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.