THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
You've got to hand it to The Purge; it has an undeniably intriguing premise. Set in the near future, the film envisions an America in which the government has sanctioned legal crime, including murder, for one twelve-hour span every year. People can go out and kill whomever they want as a means of getting out all the hostility and rage that permeate society. What would you do if something like this became a reality? Would you kill someone? Who would it be? Why would you want them dead? Could you still live with yourself afterward? Contemplating these provocative questions I've just asked you is probably more entertaining than actually sitting through The Purge.
Ethan Hawke stars as James Sandin, a guy who, appropriately, sells high-tech security systems for things specifically like this crime-free night. He lives in a huge house with his wife Mary (Lena Headey), son Charlie (“Parenthood” star Max Burkholder), and daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane). As the purge begins, the Sandins settle into their fortified home to sit things out. James and Mary don't believe in killing people (those radicals!) so they intend to have a night just like any other, albeit one that involves watching the security monitors to see what's going on outside. A short time later, a bunch of masked weirdos, led by “Polite Stranger” (Rhys Wakefield), show up at the front door, threatening to make their way in to kill the family. Suddenly, the whole legal murder thing doesn't look so bad to the Sandins.
Written and directed by James DeMonaco, The Purge is a movie that starts off going in a lot of great directions, then doesn't follow through on any of them. The concept of short-term legal crime is chilling. Can you imagine boarding yourself up at home for a night, hoping no one tried to burst through the door to kill you? The film introduces some intriguing political reasons why the government has allowed this, but ultimately drops them in the second half, at which time it becomes a routine home-invasion thriller. This robs the story of what might have been considerable punch. The Polite Stranger and his crew are very creepy too, with Rhys Wakefield giving a suitably demented performance, yet we learn very little about why they are so intent on purging. Again, The Purge might have hit a lot harder had it provided more of a motivation for the villains.
Perhaps the most disappointing failure to follow through comes with the ending. The movie has a perfect opportunity to deliver a balls-to-the-wall, shock-the-hell-out-of-the-audience capper – with a satiric sense of commentary, no less - only to drag on for an additional five minutes to deliver something more feel-good. It often feels like The Purge wants to make a bold statement but is afraid to really go for it. That proves detrimental to its overall impact.
Again, there are effective individual moments scattered throughout. They just don't add up to a powerful whole. Lately, I've been watching a lot of '80s horror movies for a series I've been doing here at The Aisle Seat. Many of them aren't especially “good,” yet contain imaginative gore, gutsy shock scenes, and/or entertaining lunacy. I suspect The Purge might work that way. In fifteen or twenty years, if you come across it on cable, you might pleasurably watch it for the cool bits and conveniently ignore the rest. Seeing it when you've shelled out cash, though, is a whole different matter. You'll likely just notice that the movie repeatedly chickens out when it should be, well, purging.
( out of four)
The Purge is rated R for strong disturbing violence and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 25 minutes.
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