The Purge
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The Purge

The Purge’ is an example of what is referred to as a high concept flick. By definition this is a movie whose premise can be described in one or two simple sentences. In this particular instance the United States has degraded into chaos necessitating a rebirth. With unemployment at a historic low and crime rampant the government has instituted an annual 12-hour period called ‘The Purge’ during which most statues of the penal law are suspended. Theft, rape and even murder are permissible in as much as during the Purge such activities will not be charged. There are certain proscribed boundaries imposed however. The use of weapons of mass destruction is prohibited and high ranking government officials are not to be harmed to ensure the continuity of a working government. Naturally those enacting the legislation making the Purge feasible would exempt themselves from all that rape, murder and various sundry acts of potentially lethal mayhem. It might be said that the involved legislators are crazy but they were certainly not stupid. Allowing a cathartic night of violence is one thing but provision should be made for self-preservation. Though out my initial viewing of the movie I kept expecting someone to ask "are ye here for Festival?"

The story is set in 2022 centering on James Sandin (Ethan Hawke). He has accumulated considerable wealth thanks to his business, selling high end security systems. Considering the annual mayhem, destruction and death that is brought about on the night of the purge Americans will obtain the best possible defense to protect life and property. If you can afford a state of the art home defense system, you will inevitably become a client of Sandin paying whatever he asks. While many take to the streets fundamentally reenacting scenes from ‘Clockwork Orange’, those of any degree of substantial means are prone to turn their homes into as close to an impenetrable bunker as possible and ride the night of terror out until sanity is restored in the morning.

The lucrative nature of his business allows Sandin and his family to afford a residence in an affluent neighborhood in San Francisco. His exalted socio-economic status and how he achieved it has become a point of contention with the neighbors. Some resent the Sandin fortress and its recent addition was financed by selling high priced systems to them. One of the neighbors, Mrs. Grace Ferrin (Arija Bareikis), informs Mary Sandin (Lena Headey) of this growing jealousy. Under normal circumstances such neighborhood conflicts rarely rise above malicious gossip but this is a country with a night that encourages revenge to the point of fatalities entirety of any legal or social repercussions make any grudge ripe to escalate beyond control. The Sandlin’s have two children, Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and Charlie (Max Burkholder). Zoey is dating Henry (Tony Oller), an older boy that needless to say does meet with the approval of her father. Charlie has inherited his father’s perchance for security devices having fitted his radio controlled car with cameras enabling to watch almost anything within range. He has expressed is doubts regarding the Purge despite it being the principle motivation that led to his family’s fortune. Zoey brings her boyfriend on the day before the ‘Purge. Her idea was to have Henry sneak into the house and they would have sufficient time to convince her father of their love since he would not throw him out during the Purge. This is analogous to an arms dealer hosting some moral objections to war.

In keeping with their Purge Night tradition the Sandin family gathers in front on the security monitors to watch the carnage. While they watch with more detachment than most people exhibit while viewing a reality TV series a bloody stranger (Edwin Hodge) appears outside their front door frantically pleading for help. As all emergency services are suspended for the duration they cannot merely call for help. Against his father’s wishes and even a modicum of common sense Charlie disables the system long enough to let the stranger in. James rushes to the door to cover the stranger with his gun but is interrupted when Henry appears opening fire on James. James returns fire fatally wounding Henry giving the stranger the opportunity to flee and hide somewhere within the closed off house bringing Zoey along with him.

In short order a ban of Purgers assembles led by a particularly sadistic individual garbed in the creepy grinning face known as ‘The Polite Leader (Rhys Wakefield)’. He attempts to forge some common ground with James on the basis that the Purge has been beneficial for both of them. The Leader elaborates on their goals. The Bloody Stranger is a homeless man designated as ideal for ‘purging’. The Leader offers a deal; release the stranger or the mob will kill the entire family. The defenses were designed to discourage not ward off a mass assault. The ‘Polite’ Leader demonstrates the extent of his psychopathic tendencies when he kills one of his own crew for interrupting him. A phrase used to describe ‘Lord Byron’ comes readily to mind; "mad, bad and dangerous to be around."

There are many classic horror movie tropes employed here with varied success. The most obvious being the ever popular isolation. Being trapped in a house had been a classic in literature made more difficult by the popularity of the cell phone. Isolation is to preclude intervention and rescue which is neatly addressed by the parameters of the premise. The standoff between the trapped and the besieging mob is also quite familiar and not particularly distinguished from the myriad of other incarnations. The premise is overly contrived and lacks any but the most tenuous basis for believability. While that had never prevented many dystopian movies from establishing an entertaining environment the elements as presented here just fell short of properly gelling.

If you overlook the various plot holes and manage to adequately construct an entertaining movie. If you permit yourself to submit to the premise you can begin to appreciate the intrinsic psychological elements that culminate in a terrorizing scenario. This is where several of traditional elements of s gothic horror story do work at least to a working level exhibited here. The overt threat is the crowed of Purgers outside led by a maniacal psychopath. This polite Leader represents the sociological effect of instituting the Purge. It formalizes antisocial behavior giving leave to those individuals already predisposed to a complete absence of empathy, moral responsibility or legal repercussion, the de facto differential diagnostic criteria for a psychopath. This can be construed as an indictment of the government’s yielding to a population willing to suspend the letter of the law for the illusion of safety. The cathartic effect of the Purge was intended to provide 364 days of relative safety; a reasonable trade off in the disparate eyes of many citizens. The socio-political message is muddled by a loosely constructed plot and inconsistent execution. As it stands the movie does manage to hold together sufficiently to serve as a reasonable beer and pizza flick with some friends.

Surviving The Night: The Making Of The Purge - Featuring Exclusive Interviews With Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey

Posted 10/09/2013            08/27/2016

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