The Purge

Starring : Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Edwin Hodge, Chris Mulkey, Max Burkholder, Adelaide Kane, Rhys Wakefield

Director : James DeMonaco

Release Date : 22 Aug 2013

This violent low-budget thriller is poorly executed, but somehow gets you thinking about what it is trying to say.

IMAGINE a country where, one night a year, anyone can be a murderer, rapist, robber, or kidnapper ... with no penalty.

And it’s all done in the name of a collective soul-cleansing, a massive nationwide catharsis.

That’s the United States of the near future, and the “cleansing” in this case is The Purge.

It’s an alternate reality that’s just a little ahead and to the left (or in this case, further to the right) of where we are; the kind of premise that belongs on an anthology show where each episode is introduced by a man in a dark suit standing off to one side, talking about journeys, signposts and dimensions.

In this incarnation, however, it is an exploitation flick – the kind of low-budget effort that sensationalises hot-button issues, appearing with great regularity, but usually fading from memory, well before the next one of its ilk comes along.

The Purge, though, is a rarity. It is full of gaps in logic, populated with characters who frequently do such stupid things that you feel like killing them yourself, and its attempts at satire and allegory mostly earn unintentional laughs through lines like “There were 20 people Purging in the centre of town” (or something similar to that).

And yet, even though such flaws should automatically disqualify it from being thought-provoking, or even discussion-worthy, it does offer a fair bit to chew on.

It’s set about a decade from now, in a future United States where the “new founding fathers”, whoever they are, have established a new order. Crime is way down, unemployment is at 1%, the economy is booming, and they have The Purge to thank for it.

This is an annual 12-hour slot from 7pm to 7am where all forms of criminal activity are legal, where no emergency and law enforcement services are available, and anything goes.

Disgruntled employees can hunt down and kill their bosses, jealous neighbours can take what they’ve coveted all year long, gangs of people are free to roam the streets raping or killing ... all in the name of purging their souls, of “releasing the beast” for that one night so that they become docile, productive, polite, law-abiding citizens for the other 364.

Wait a minute. Unless the founding fathers have been sneaking mind-control drugs into the nation’s water or food supply, I seriously doubt one night of bloodlust is going to satisfy some people for a whole year.

The aftermath of the violence, the desire for revenge, the basic instincts that are aroused by The Purge ... they’re all going to lead to people having some serious coping issues.

If you take this as allegory, though, maybe the gaps can be overlooked, since the story addresses real present-day concerns beneath its “what-if” veneer: worsening economic crises, skyrocketing violent crime, the creeping spread of class divisions.

The well-to-do can afford to barricade themselves behind expensive security systems for the night, and just put out a bunch of blue flowers to show their support. Some – a growing number each year, we’re told – go out and Purge (stop giggling, you!).

But, as the film’s dissenting voices claim, and as a vicious (but polite) young man states during the film, the real targets are the poor and homeless who cannot afford to protect themselves, victims of a state-sanctioned annual “culling”.

At the centre of the film are the Sandins, a rather well-to-do but borderline dysfunctional family.

James (Ethan Hawke) is the breadwinner and makes his living selling security systems; Mary (Lena Headey; hi, Cersei) is the “happy” homemaker mum with suppressed issues; Zoey (Adelaide Kane) is the rebellious teenage daughter who’s dating an older boy, whom Daddy doesn’t like; and Charlie (Max Burkholder) is the quiet but confused younger son who wonders why his parents don’t take part in The Purge.

It’s Charlie who triggers the Sandins’ troubles on Purge Night.

After James has locked them in for the evening, the boy spots a wounded homeless man (Edwin Hodge) in the neighbourhood, pleading for help, and lets him in.

Along comes that polite young man (Rhys Wakefield) and his pals, armed to the teeth and really mad at the Sandins for denying them their “sport” and their “right to cleanse their souls” by “hunting and killing the homeless swine”.

Phew, talk about a dead giveaway about the founding fathers’ intentions right there.

Writer-director James DeMonaco’s attempt to draw the lines in this struggle is clumsy, even heavy-handed.

The homeless man is black and an ex-serviceman (apparent from the dogtags he wears), his pursuers white and clearly privileged kids (apparently from some upper-class college), the Sandins the typical uninvolved middle class, and the supposed spiritual underpinnings of The Purge are merely an insidious excuse to commit horrible transgressions against humanity.

There will be blood, lots of it, before the end-of-Purge siren sounds, affording plenty of spleen-venting to those who dig exploitation flicks for such thrills.

Yet, some of the film’s most telling material is found in the random newscasts and pronouncements that pepper the film.

For example, high-ranking government officials are exempt from The Purge – and so have no connection to the on-the-ground suffering, or the irreparable damage to the individual and collective psyche of the people wrought by their two-faced policies (mmm, yeah); those who buy into The Purge (substitute this with any dehumanising or highly-discriminatory policy) do so with a frightening zeal; and the occasional dissenting voice describes painful and brutal suffering, but is not addressed.

I can see how the writer-director is trying to prod some consciences here through the Sandins’ collective dilemma as a family: no matter how hard they try to hide and pretend that bad things will pass by if they just keep up appearances and hunker down, there will come a time when they have no choice but to take a stand, or have everything they stand on taken away.

Wow, I have gone on about this one.

So much fumbled potential, hopefully to be addressed in the sequel (already green-lit, thanks to this one earning more than 20 times its US$3mil [RM9.8mil] budget Stateside alone) and developed with a little more care next time, hopefully.

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The Purge


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