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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Purge Movie Review


2022 doesn't seem all that far away, but according to "The Purge" by then we will be living in a new America, one where unemployment is virtually nonexistent, everyone's needs are met, and peace prevails. This near-future utopia will be brought to us by the mysterious New Founding Fathers, and made possible by the declaration of 'Purge Night', an annual twelve-hour period during which laws are suspended, mayhem is encouraged, and any crime up to and including murder becomes socially acceptable. What is life like for a typical family in this artificially constructed promised land? For the upper-middle class Sandins, things are good: dad James (Ethan Hawke, "Daybreakers") is a top salesman for a high-end residential security firm, mom Mary (Lena Headey, "Game of Thrones") maintains the family's sprawling house in a ritzy upscale community while navigating the subtle resentments of jealous neighbors, and kids Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and Charlie (Max Burkholder) exhibit the usual teenage growing pains but seem otherwise well-adjusted. However, there are hints early on that this new America isn't so comfortable for everyone - particularly those at the lower end of the social and economic scale.

Watching the Sandins set up for the yearly 'Purge Night' provides a snapshot of the structure and the psychology behind the new social order: having determined that human beings are inherently aggressive, competitive, jealous, and violent, the New Founding Fathers decreed the annual purge, allowing citizens to act out negative emotions and violent impulses during a limited time period in order to ensure an orderly and functional society throughout the rest of the year. In fact, "purging" isn't just accepted, it's encouraged as an important expression of patriotism and civic duty. As the start of Purge Night approaches, public service announcements provide reminders that displaying a certain type of blue flowers outside the home is a traditional symbol of solidarity with the event and the Sandins dutifully comply, even as son Charlie, who has been studying purge history in school, asks why his parents don't actively participate in the violence. "We don't feel the need to", is the terse response, but their answer reveals some cracks in the couple's commitment to the annual rite, and to the value system that it both enables and symbolizes.

Rather than honing their knives or finding hunting partners, the Sandins' prep for the purge includes sealing themselves in with the seemingly-impenetrable security system that James has also sold to many of the homeowners in the vicinity. However, as most IT folks could tell you, no security system is actually impenetrable because there's no way to engineer around the vagaries of human behavior. In this case the chink in the armor comes in the form of Charlie unexpectedly disarming the system when a bloody, desperate man rushes up to the house and begs to be saved from a murderous Purge Night mob that's pursuing him. Soon the stranger is in the house, his pursuers have tracked him to the family's door, and threats are being issued in coldly logical terms that render the mob's violent ultimatums all the more blood-curdling. Unless they turn over the man that they are sheltering and allow him to be sacrificed, the mob will use every weapon they have to break through the security system, pull the house down, and murder the family - because by refusing to participate in the purge, the Sandins are guilty of being unpatriotic.

The dynamics at play here prove to be some of the most interesting elements of "The Purge", as the attackers threatening the Sandins are presented by their supercilious leader as "the elite", a group of "exceedingly well-educated" prep-schoolers who see it as their right to murder the poor and homeless on Purge Night, and further see the functions of commodity and sacrifice as the only contributions that the disadvantaged provide to society. Subtle it isn't; but the very audacity with which the parallels are drawn invites the viewer to pause and consider contemporary social and economic stratification and wonder just where American society might be headed.

Viewers less given to contemplation can focus on the cat-and-mouse game being played out as James seeks the stranger hiding in the house, while Mary tries to locate the kids and keep them safe. Meanwhile the security system displays images of the masked young people cavorting on the lawn outside, their grim playfulness eerily reminiscent of some of the old footage of the Manson family, and the tension rachets higher as Mary asks James to assure her that they will remain safe. "Well", he replies, "the security system wasn't really designed for a direct attack. Things like this aren't supposed to happen in our neighborhood."

While "The Purge" doesn't stint on the action - there's lots of hand to hand combat at close quarters, and shifting allegiances among characters will keep viewers guessing enough to remain engaged - there's no getting away from the deeper questions that are raised by the story: How long can you pretend to support an immoral system before being called on to participate in it? Is it possible to justify violence by framing it as defensive rather than aggressive? And, how much are we really paying for the illusion of security?

"The Purge" isn't perfect. The script is somewhat clumsy, with unsubtle plot-points front-loaded into the first twenty minutes, a couple of seeming setups that don't pay off, and a going-nowhere secondary storyline that appears to have been added as padding. But overall it's brisk and entertaining, the acting is effective, and it will certainly make you think - which is already more than can be said for many of the mindless offerings dotting the summer movie landscape thus far.

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