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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: The Purge


THE PURGE (One and a Half Stars)
U.S.: James DeMonaco, 2013

Mass anarchy comes but once a year — or at least it does in the micro-budget, ultra-violent science fiction  fable, The Purge. Set ten years or so in the future, The Purge has a potentially terrific premise, botched in the execution. It imagines an America where the government has decided to allow one night of unpunished crime a year: one time span, from seven in the evening to seven in the morning, when the police don’t make arrests and no crime incurs punishment. This strange amnesty is intended as a pressure-reliever to keep the populace pacified and law-abiding the rest of the time. And, apparently it’s effective — at least for some (such as the rich and comfortable who can afford protection.). That one night bloodbath of  untrammeled criminality  — as portrayed in writer-director James DeMonaco’s otherwise formula-bound horror movie — is enough, it seems to keep the populace upright, or largely so, for the other 364 days. In this world, or this movie, this crazy idea works. In a way..

What happens on Purge night? The people, including everybody but some select national leaders (of course) are unrestrained but also unprotected. They can do anything, break any law — because for those 12 hours, no police will patrol the streets or make arrests or even gather and keep evidence, no doctors will tend the injured in the hospitals, and every violation of the law, no matter how heinous, will  be forgiven automatically, in advance  — including armed robbery, murder, rape  and green-lighting  violent movies with potentially terrific ideas that wind up making no sense and indulging the violent fantasies they seem to be criticizing. Like this one.

It’s a great mad premise, potentially, but it turns out to be a lousy movie. The first half hour, which suggests an old Twilight Zone episode  is pretty good. Then the movie, with the exception of one clever late-inning twist, descends into chaos and clichés. It becomes just another violent siege movie, as, for those 12 hours of The Purge, we follow the travails of a supposedly ordinary (but pretty comfortable-looking) family, the Sandins. The Sandins live in a gated upper-middle class community, where the father, James (Ethan Hawke) has sold and supplied most of the security devices that protect his family and his neighbors, including barred doors, sealed windows, and multiple  surveillance cameras. There are also, of course, lots of guns and sharp or blunt instruments, and they will be used.

Hawke’s Sandin is an energetic white-collar guy who’s just been named his security company’s star salesman, and Hawks plays him with that offhand cheeriness and attractively crooked smile that he often uses when he’s portraying someone who might get a comeuppance. The other Sandins, a familiar-looking bunch, include his well-styled, prettily competent  wife Mary (Lena Headey), their pretty but rebellious, 16-year-old daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane), and their long-haired, sullen-looking, not so pretty but good-hearted 14 year old son Charlie (Max Burkholder). This family has generation-gap problems, such as Zoey’s over-eager boyfriend, Henry (Tony Diller), who sneaks into the house, inappropriately. But, at dinner time, they seem touchy, but oddly self-preoccupied for a group about to face near-total social breakdown.

So we watch as the Sandins — supposedly safe in their gated community, locked behind their scads of security devices, surrounded  by equally well-off and protected upper-middle class neighbors, and led by a Father who seems to Know Best — try to keep out of harm’s way. (Non-Spoiler Alert: This is a horror movie; it ain’t gonna happen.) Later, they must try to cope with a sudden violent incident, with an intruder seeking help (Edwin Hodge as the Stranger), and with an invasion of what seem to be masked rich kids, led by the guy with the most Scream-ish  mask and voice (Rhys Wakefield, who‘s quite good), This  sinister-looking, privileged-seeming young bunch are hot to  terminate what they call homeless pigs, have chased the Stranger to the Sandins’  house, where he was seen on a monitor and let in by soft-hearted Charlie. The homeless Stranger (played by Edwin Hodge), who is strangely silent, tries to hide  and, partly because he is African-American and the upper-middle-class lynch mob pursuing him is white, he nags at the Sandins’ conscience, and probably most of the audience’s, throughout. There’s also a surprise twist of sorts coming, one also reminiscent of the Rod Serling heyday of The Twilight Zone, and it supplies the movie’s only really good late dramatic scene.

Maybe that’s part of what’s wrong with The Purge — and with most modern horror-action movies.  These shows all seem so eager to get to what the filmmakers consider the “red meat” scenes — the bloody carnage that the audience presumably bought their tickets to see — that they tend to pass up, or to give short shrift, to the more human, dramatic sequences that might have made the movie far more memorable. The Purge, which is a relatively lower-budget movie, doesn’t really show us the scenes of mass carnage and riot that are obviously going on — though the movie could have suggested them with a little more mayhem on the TV, before the lights went off. I found it difficult to accept the idea that a mob or two, with their own weapons,  wouldn’t try to breach the gates in the Sandins’ neighborhood and loot some of these posh homes. Instead, The Purge leaps to lower budget clichés, to the same average-family-or-kids-under-siege-by-psychos  thriller we’ve seen over and over gain.

Director-writer DeMonaco is a specialist in siege movies; he wrote both The Negotiator and the 2005 remake of Assault on Precinct 13  (which also starred  Ethan Hawke). But, after his promising set up, this movie becomes just another shoot-’em-up, with some obvious anti-anti-government messages. I’d like to have known why the doctors weren’t working, but we don’t get any explanation of that, or why the visible menaces  in the movie (which doesn’t stray much outside the gates), mostly include that relative handful of kids in masks, or, indeed, why they bother to wear masks, unless it’s just to scare hell out of the Sandins, or why they seem so unafraid of the Sandins’ firepower, or why the Sandins don’t use it better — unless it’s just because they’re another average family under siege, and you‘ve got to keep cranking up the tension.

One can envision, on this night of chaos and tumult,  hundreds and thousands of people in various locations, perhaps banding together (in another homegrown social-political movement), trying to storm houses and stores and banks and kill their enemies, everywhere. But this movie, possibly because of the thriftier budget, just gives us  the usual family-in-terror stuff — which might have worked fine, if The Purge had more Twilight-Zone-ish dramatic suspense scenes.

It seems an especially sharp irony that Ethan Hawke, who is currently appearing in one of the year’s best movies, Before Midnight — the wonderful last film in  Hawkes’ and Julie Delpy’s and Richard Linklater’s romantic trilogy, which Hawkes co-wrote and in which he gives a great performance — is also appearing in something like this, which might be one of the year’s worst movies, if it were done a little less skillfully. And, in fact,  if it didn‘t have Ethan Hawke (and Wa1kefield and Hodge). In choosing The Purge, beyond money considerations, Hawke may have been responding in part to the film’s political themes — which are clearly anti-right wing extremist and against racial or sexual or class prejudice. Instead, he made something to get spooked by. By contrast, Before Midnight  shows us how fascinating the human face and human conversation, and the real problems of real-seeming people, can be.

Would The Purge have played better if it gave more vent to ideas and emotions, and less to ultra-violence? I’d like to think so. But part of the audience I saw it with, screamed and applauded and laughed at that violence, which I thought became boring and alienating. And, though I’d like to think that these moviegoers were responding to, or at least thinking about, some of the show’s ideas too, a lot of  them probably didn’t care what happened between the red meat scenes.

The Purge may be well-named. The movie‘s eventually almost non-stop brutality and terror have a kind of emetic effect — which is what happens in most of these pictures. The moviemakers, and they’re obviously intelligent people, might argue that it doesn’t matter as long as the picture works — which is the same argument they give to the fictional  government leaders who thought up the Purge and then hid in their own safety zones. Maybe it does work, for some. But the result, for me, was mostly bloody awful.


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One Response to “Wilmington on Movies: The Purge”

  1. The Purge says:

    From the producers of Paranormal Activity (as is all horror films these days) The Purge tells the story of a near future were crime is at an all time low and unemployment stands at under 1% of the US population, to compensate for one night a year all crime (including murder) is legal for 12 hours allowing society some kind of release.

    The film revolves around the Sandin family who are confronted by a group of college students hunting a man on the night of the Purge who the family had allowed into their home after lockdown. The Purgers (lead by Rhys Wakefield) drastically try to break into the family’s home causing James (Ethan Hawke) and Mary (Lena Headey) to protect their children from the invaders in order to survive the night.

    The main problem with the film is the premise itself, whilst interesting is filled with flaws and holes that just make the whole idea ridiculous. Such as what happens to the serial killers and career criminals of this world? Do they just control their urges to kill or steal for the other 364 days until the next Purge, as well what if someone has a heart attack on the night of The Purge? Is it just a case of bad luck you chose the wrong night to need medical care?

    Despite the flaws of the premise, the film repeatedly ignores the possibilities of the premise, instead of exploring the ideas behind the Purge or the events that occur on the night of the Purge from different perspectives and situations. Instead the film settles for a typical home invasion story that although done well, is nothing we haven’t seen done in many other films. The Purge in the end seems to only be the premise of this film to stop the age old question of “Why don’t they just call the police?” in home invasion films.

    To the films credit it is quite subtle, there’s a running theme that the Purge is just an excuse for the upper classes to exterminate the poor, driven by all the attackers wearing prep school blazers and the person they are chasing wearing dog tags around his neck. The film also contains some strong performances, especially from Ethan Hawke (Training Day, Lord of War) and Lena Headey (Dredd, Game of Thrones) who carry the film throughout. The film also has a twist near the end which allows the audience to get inside the heads of the people during this night.

    That cant be said for the leader of the Purger’s played by Rhys Wakefield (Sanctum, Home and Away)whose performance is slightly cringe worthy, hes trying to be psychotic yet in control of the proceedings but it just comes across as a amateur dramatics’ version of The Joker. He just never seems like a really threat and just a creepy next door neighbour.

    The film also contains some bizarre and just plain weird set pieces, such as the families’ son who builds a spy camera on a chard baby doll on the top of a rhino tank from Warhammer 40,000. The thing looks like a demented contraption from Sid’s bedroom in Toy Story.

    Overall, The Purge is an OK home invasion film, there are moments of suspense and a couple of jump scares are effective. The wasted potential of the premise is the films main downfall which could have lead to a more effective and possible original film then what we got in the end.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
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“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon