The Mad Max retrospective continues soon, and as part of an effort to get reviews of newer movies out quickly, Man of Steel early tomorrow.
For now, catching up on last week's technical hit:
Written and directed by James DeMonaco
With Ethan Hawke (James Sandin), Lena Headey (Mary Sandin), Lena Headey’s extremely lovely asymmetrical bob haircut (itself), Max Burkholder (Charlie Sandin), Adelaide Kane (Zoey Sandin), Rhys Wakefield (Polite Stranger), and a plot device with four lines (Plot Device With Four Lines)
Spoiler alert: mild
Spoiler alert: mild
In the year 2022, control of the United States government has been seized by a group of radicals, whose philosophy combines elements of intense religiosity, fascism, and anarchism. At some point, they changed their name to the New Founding Fathers.
The first undertaking of this revolutionary cabal was to establish, nationwide, the Purge. Between dusk and dawn, one evening a year, everything gets all Thriller for twelve hours, as ordinary citizens are permitted and encouraged to slake their previously unspeakable desires for violence upon their fellow Americans.
The plot of The Purge, the movie, is relatively simple. In the post-Purge America, James Sandin is in the business of home security and business is booming. He’s equipped his neighborhood with the newest in home safety solutions, which, when armed, are vaguely reminiscent of the precautions the citizens of New New York take when faced with the depredations of Robot Santa.
When the night of the Purge comes, the Sandins intend to ensconce themselves in their steel cocoon and watch some TV. Others, however, have more energetic agendas for the evening.
Take the kids from Alpha Beta House, for example. When they show up in pursuit of a “homeless pig!” whom the Sandins have, by accident, granted sanctuary, their leader, “Polite Stranger” Rhys Wakefield—who has clearly watched both Funny Games several dozen times apiece in preparation for his role—makes it clear to James that he cannot abide poors, nor nerds. He insists that James not be a nerd and give up his chosen prey; James waffles; the prey wanders off; and the siege begins.
"IS TAMARA HOME?"
The real goal of the Purge, it is suggested, is the elimination of the lower classes, who can afford neither the Sandins’ McMansion fortresses nor serious armament. The results speak for themselves: violent crime is limited to one night, the economy is booming, and there is 1% unemployment. Well, at least in the New Founding Fathers’ America, it’s over quick.
Despite the somewhat raw, unnuanced presentation, the implausibility of this being accepted by the majority of any country, even the U.S., and the screenwriters' failure to grasp of the importance of keeping the economy above the NAIRU, I appreciate the radical sentimentality of The Purge. And I know it may shock you, but Andrew Niccol really had nothing to do with this movie at all.
Of course: like The Truman Show, Gattaca, or In Time, a premise like The Purge's is bound to have enormous problems. It’s best to take it all in stride. Personally, on this particular journey to the shitty allegorical future, I was able to; your own mileage may vary.
The film’s most effective moments are early on, as the sickening mundanity of it all is established, and we see and hear glimpses of dark ambitions: a radio show interviewing a caller about his big Purge plan to kill his boss, the neighbor sharpening his machete in his front lawn, or the two heavily armed, camo-clad neighbors seen stalking out into the streets for prey, to the dull surprise of James Sandin, who remarks with a shrug, “I didn’t even know they were friends.”
These are the more inspired fragments of DeMonaco’s fever dream, and you get the sense you might be watching a really interesting movie, until you recall the trailers, and say to yourself, oh, right, Straw Dogs In Space. One’s mind wanders a little, then, wondering how cool it would be to see this world painted by a broader brush than could be purchased with the sub-$5 million pittance allowed DeMonaco for his movie; one suspects that the getting-stale home invasion micro-genre wastes the premise. There are crimes other than murder, after all; and there were moments early on that I wondered how the high concept might be applied to other, less limiting genres—say, a heist film.
But this is perhaps thinking a bit grander than DeMonaco realistically could. And to his credit, he seems to want to break out of this straightjacket; to that end, The Purge is an action thriller, a siege movie with only a slight horror bent, more Panic Room than Halloween, despite the masks that the killers that are not Rhys Wakefield have donned to frighten—whom? Presumably, the audience. It does not work. When Wakefield takes his off (so as, one suspects, the better to act with), I can’t tell if it’s supposed to be amusing that he’s screwed up his own face in a permanent rictus, only very marginally less cartoonish and grotesque than his jester mask. Regardless of intent, it's not scary. But it is funny, and I grant points for this being in the film.
I saw you put your hands on your face, but nothing happened. Was something supposed to happen?
In any event, taken solely as the siege movie it's not wholly honestly advertised as, The Purge is a qualified success. It has some surprises. Keep an eye out for the daughter’s boyfriend. Indeed, from the opening through the scenes where the Sandins are considering handing over their refugee to the fiends outside, The Purge is actually pretty excellent—the “letter opener” sequence is, well, damned good, and features Ethan Hawke’s best moments.
When the action begins in earnest, however, it’s unfortunately not handled nearly as well as you’d hope. It becomes almost immediately apparent that DeMonaco needs to learn more than one trick (bet that at any given moment of theoretical suspense that there is someone just out of the frame with a gun). Thus does The Purge rapidly exhaust its supply of interesting set-pieces, and perhaps its budget.
The budgetary issue makes it all the odder that effectively pacing the violence is so ignored—for example, MILD SPOILER (less mild, though, if you are dumb), the Sandins’ fortifications are overcome, Shaka, when the walls fell. That this would eventually happen was always obligatory, but the unfortunate part is that it's done so quickly, and with such simple expedients—nothing to engage our engineering glands. Sure, this is arguably a feature and not a bug, since James is the one who grew wealthy selling the same defective equipment to all his friends and neighbors. At the same time, I was looking forward to the Alpha Betas defeating the barriers with cleverness and expertise, maybe even some college math, while the Sandins’ fear mounted minute by minute, rather than tearing them down with trivial effort. I guess I’ll leave it to you to decide for yourself whether you want a little more message in a movie comprised of approximately 96.4% message already, or whether you’d rather have a little more tension in a movie rather lacking in it.
"Oh shit. Does Rhys Wakefield have a credit card in his hand? It's over."
Thus, room-to-room combat ensues in short order. One might expect, if not demand, that in this truly disturbing universe, everyone would be trained in firearms and the defense of the household, from the patriarch down to the littlest angel. In this world, you would be doing Purge drills once a month if not once a week. So, do the Sandins’ skills stand up? With the marginal exception of James, not remotely.
And that’s a shame. I felt that something great was about to happen when the ten year old was handed a pistol, and would have bet money on it once the adult Sandins separated. No one would do something that dumb unless they were about to—oh, never mind. Note to Lena Headey’s character: Ma-Ma thinks this movie is kind of sexist, and she thinks you suck.
But seriously, great hair.
Yet as poor as the Sandins are at defending their home ground, Alpha Beta House, who indicate that they go out and murder people every year, is possibly the most inept band of killers ever seen in a movie. Is there any credible threat to a guy giving a constant piggy-back ride to his girlfriend, full-on Master Blaster-style, one pistol and an ax between them, wearing masks that clearly limit their vision, when trying to hunt down opponents drawing from their personal paramilitary armory? Some aren’t even equipped with firearms.
So, the film builds toward its climax in a quasi-competent manner, the antagonists far too pussy-footed to be truly good villains. But as Ethan Hawke blows these meatbags away, a hope grew in my heart that DeMonaco was still going to turn this around. Is James having fun here? Is he getting into it? There would have been something cruel and subversive to that notion—jump cut to 2023 and next year’s Purge night: rich scumbags James and Mary hunting student debtors across a college campus, resplendent in their victims blood. I’m pretty sure that’s how John Carpenter would have ended it. I’ll point out that John Carpenter also would have given the movie an awesome score, rather than—say, did this movie even have music?
But some other stuff happens instead. It’s not, by and large, very surprising, nor as interesting as it could be.
I was still hoping, a little, as the rosy-fingered dawn approached, that someone would at least realize that you don’t actually require Purge rules to be in effect to gun down an intruder in your home with legal impunity.
Is The Purge, ultimately, a good movie? Sorta. In its defense, I did learn that meaningless violence is bad. I know watching that important lesson unfold was the primary reason I came to watch a silly movie about Ethan Hawke killing the Strangers with a BFG in the objectivist future.
I would say that, despite the lackluster, if not downright didactic, third act, complete with a mild and obvious twistaroo, it’s worth seeing when it shows up on Netflix inevitably, because it is still that silly movie, and its attempt to raise class consciousness is certainly credited. Come for the violence; stay for the propaganda; and we’ll look forward to seeing if DeMonaco can give us more next time.