Thursday, June 13, 2013

THE PURGE Is Full-On Midnight Movie Madness


- THE PURGE is a gloriously absurd B-movie that is oftentimes silly, stupid, and/or just plain makes no sense. And yet, there's a giddy sense of fun to the film and its over-the-top, high-concept premise that makes it a perfect midnight movie.

The premise of The Purge is ridiculous, yet undeniably tantalizing. In the near future, the US has recovered from economic and societal collapse by instituting The Purge - an annual 24-hour event in which all crime - yes, ALL crime, is legal. The idea is that, by giving people one day in which to let off some steam - murder, kill, pillage ... you know, the usual - you'll both weed out society's dregs and give people incentive to be on good behavior for the rest of the year. There's also a definite undercurrent of class-based politics here. While the not-violently-inclined middle and upper class folks barricade themselves in their homes on Purge Day, via high-end security systems, the poor and homeless are left as easy pickin's for any psycho with a shotgun who feels like using 'em as target practice. Eliminate society's poor and needy, and hey, suddenly the economy is in better shape. The movie leaves many, many unanswered questions about how exactly Purge Day works and how exactly average Joes deal with it / react to it. All we really know is that certain government officials are off-limits, that only a certain grade of weapons are allowed (i.e., you can go out and murder with handguns or knives, but not with, say, bombs), and that all medical and safety services are suspended (so no firemen, no police, and no hospitals on Purge Day - sorry random people who have heart attacks or strokes - you're screwed!).

As Purge Day dawns, the movie introduces us to the Sandins, a whitebread sort of all-American family, whose patriarch - played by Ethan Hawke - happens to be a home security systems salesman, who's sold systems to just about everyone in his neighborhood. Oh, the irony, as said system will, of course, be put to the test once Purge Day hits and law seizes to exist. I won't spoil how things unfold, exactly, except to say that the Sandins' plans of a nice, quiet Purge Day spent playing boardgames and watching movies gets upended when their son, Charlie, lets in a homeless man who is on the run from a pack of yuppie psycho killers who've been hunting him for sport. Things pretty much go downhill from there for the Sandins, as this nice every-family has to lock n' load in order to survive a night that's quickly become a nightmare.

THE PURGE is one of those movies that will have you face-palming yourself on multiple occasions. The characters make absolutely moronic and illogical decisions - decisions that could only come from the mind of a screenwriter desperately trying to move them from Point A to Point B. There are major plot holes. Characters are forgotten about for long stretches only to return as if by magic. The movie has severe problems with time and space - in particular, its sense of spacial geography pretty much falls apart once the home invasion begins. Characters' motivations are very, very broadly drawn - in particular, an early subplot involving the boyfriend of teen daughter Zoey is such a stretch that it's almost laugh-out-loud funny.

But here's the thing, a lot of the movie really *is* laugh-out loud funny. Sometimes intentionally, many times not. It's hard to put into words, exactly, but what makes The Purge so damn entertaining is that even when it's trying to be serious, it's still only about 75% serious. There are moments in the movie that are 100% satirical and tongue-in-cheek, and those moments work very well. But the rest of the movie is still, tonally, somewhat self-aware of its own absurdity. It invites you to laugh at the ridiculousness, and it self-consciously contains moments meant to elicit applause, and moments meant to make you shout "WTF is happening right now!"

Yes, the movie does have some issues with tone. It slowly gets more and more over-the-top as it progresses, with its final act becoming an all-out black comedy. In all likelihood, there isn't enough overt satire in the first two-thirds of the movie. There are moments, but the movie doesn't have enough fun with its premise, or really hammer home any one particular point. Like I said, there is some commentary here on class warfare, on gun ownership, and on American society in general. But the movie seems to shy away from getting too much into any of that, tossing in little satirical moments here and there, but ultimately satisfied to be a souped-up home invasion film. I think that's why the movie is frustrating in some ways, because the premise has so much potential, but the movie only barely touches on it.

In some ways though, that's okay. It's a fun little story. And what makes it all work is that Ethan Hawke and Lena Heady are totally up for this, and 100% get how to play the B-movie tone to perfection. Hawke is quite entertaining as the Ned Flanders-ish, dorky dad who eventually has to unleash his inner badass. Same goes for Lena Heady as the buttoned-up mom ready to smash someone's head in if it means protecting her family. The kid actors are unfortunately a bit less convincing. And Rhys Wakefield, as the main, home-invading, mask-wearing psycho, is hilariously over-the-top, but perhaps a bit *too* over the top at times. But the two leads get what movie they're in, and really help make it all work maybe better than it should.

The Purge could be called a bad movie in some ways. There is just a lot about it that's not well thought-out, poorly-handled, or ill-advised. There's spotty acting, writing, and direction in spades. But man, it's got charm, ambition, and entertainment value to spare. Maybe I'm just a sucker for these sorts of outlandish, satirical sci-fi premises - they take me back to the likes of Escape From NY or They Live - John Carpenter's totally crazy yet imagination and gallows humor-filled cult favorites. There's something to be said for the B-movie that has no shame and no desire to hold back in the name of good taste or common sense. And there's something to be said for a movie whose premise alone can inspire hours of endless "what-if" conversations, debates, and jokes. Not a good movie in any strict sense of the word, but hey, I still had a blast seeing it in a theater full of people laughing and joking and reacting.

My Grade: B

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