Low Budget "The Purge" Misses Its Mark

That “The Purge” is at all watchable is a credit to all involved. The film cost a mere $3 million to produce (unheard of for a genre pic in wide release) and the entire story takes place in one location. To paraphrase the late Roger Ebert, it’s every film critic’s duty to grade on curve – a “Harold & Kumar” film cannot and should not be held to the same standards as a Scorsese picture – but with a project like “The Purge,” it almost seems unfair to criticize it at all. It’s occasionally sleek, relatively gripping, and certainly well made.

However, its strengths are wholly cribbed from other films, making it easy to watch but difficult to respect. There are strong echoes of “A Clockwork Orange,” “Halloween,” and even “The Terminator” – all great films to mimic – but aside from its high concept, “The Purge” utterly fails to make a name for itself. The conceit? In 2022 the United States government has been overtaken by a political group that calls themselves the “New Founding Fathers.” For one night every year, they’ve legalized all crime, essentially eliminating crime from the other 364 days on the calendar. But their motives are all too transparent – at least to everyone but the film’s characters.

Ethan Hawke stars as James Sandin, a successful home security salesman who’s made bank from the annual bloodbath. In the hours leading up to the year’s Purge, James hunkers down with his family (Lena Headey plays his wife, Mary), ultimately encasing their house in slabs of concrete. Of course, things don’t go as planned. James’ son, Charlie (Max Burkholder), decides to help a bloodied stranger, letting him inside their house mid-Purge. An exceptionally creepy gang of masked vigilantes (led by Rhys Wakefield) finds their way to the Sandin house and demands that their prey be released.

In the end, writer-director James DeMonaco isn’t quite sure of his own movie’s identity. At times it feels like nothing more than a brain dead white-knuckler (in the vein of 2001’s underrated “Joy Ride”), but then he switches gears and awkwardly injects social commentary. The result is a muddled 85 minutes that alternatively thrills and confounds. It doesn’t help that the film’s moral center, Charlie, is kind of an idiot.

The picture’s successes are all in its staging and atmosphere, consistently wringing as much eeriness out of its set-up as possible. Are the villains’ grinning masks a clichéd, cut-rate scare tactic? Yes, but in casting a lead baddie (Wakefield) whose actual smile is more disturbing than that of his mask, DeMarco cleverly lets us know that he’s in on the joke. Wakefield’s performance is by far the best in the film, and his security cam monologue is as unsettling as anything I’ve seen in a while.

Unfortunately, there’s not much more to the film than that. There are some jump scares, one highly predictable twist, and a fair amount of violence, but “The Purge” pretty much begins and ends with its concept. That some mid-credit voiceover work is more compelling than much of the film is probably a net negative, but it emphasizes that DeMarco did a lot of things right here. There are things to like about “The Purge,” particularly when considering its miniscule budget. Unfortunately, as a whole it’s not quite worthy of a recommendation – even to fans of the genre.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: June 7, 2013
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: James DeMonaco
Screenwriter: James DeMonaco
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Adelaide Kane, Max Burkholder
MPAA Rating: R (for strong disturbing violence and some language)