The United States government has nearly eliminated crime and unemployment by implementing an annual 12-hour "purge," during which time all crime is legal. This is a ridiculous yet intriguing premise for a film, and it begs a number of questions about human nature and social interaction. The Purge was a surprise hit at the box office last summer, earning over $85 million on its $3-million budget. The film's tremendous popularity may also be its downfall, as The Purge is actually a small, focused movie. The premise lends itself to an expansive universe, where viewers are given VIP access to the horrors of the annual purge. Universal Studios is even adding a purge-themed haunt to its Halloween festivities. The film is little more than a standard-issue home invasion thriller. Taking this route was expected given the budget, but The Purge loses steam during its midsection, when characters roam around in the perilous dark sabotaged by their own stupidity. Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey give the film an emotional boost, and, while The Purge is disappointingly pedestrian, an intriguing premise and divisive ending keep things interesting.
James Sandin (Hawke) got rich selling his neighbors the elaborate security systems needed to survive the annual purge. Sandin, his wife Mary (Headey), and kids Charlie (Max Burkholder) and Zoey (Adelaide Kane) sit down to dinner before the purge, confidant James' own heavily fortified home will afford them a peaceful evening. After lockdown, the Sandins watch the activity outside via a bank of monitors. The catalyst for the conflict is also a moment that likely had obnoxious movie-goers yelling at the screen: Charlie sees a wounded man being hunted outside and decides to offer him shelter. Things quickly spin out of control inside the house, and soon a masked man (Rhys Wakefield), dubbed the "Polite Leader" on IMDb, comes a-knocking. The man tells James that he must release the recipient of Charlie's salvation - a homeless veteran - to his cronies for purging or risk a similar fate for his family. James is quick to agree but finds his family and the soon-to-be victim less willing.
The filmmakers obviously meant to lace The Purge with social commentary. How would everyday citizens react to a 12-hour free pass to enact whatever awful ultraviolence they have been dreaming of in their office cubicles? If murder and rape were suddenly legal, would you do it? Is it the punishment or the crime itself that deters? Purge supporters place blue flowers on their stoops before the eve of destruction. The Sandins place the flowers but turn out to be staunchly against the fallout from the purge. They've profited on the fears of their neighbors, but isn't James simply supplying an overwhelming demand? These moral questions are the most interesting part of The Purge, which turns into a ho-hum chase thriller halfway through, as masked antagonists stalk the Sandins in their own home. The low budget necessitates many fuzzy, too-dark-to-see hallway shots, and the intended suspense is nowhere to be found. Director James DeMonaco says he changed the tone of the film while editing, dialing back the satire and playing up the brutality. This may be the reason for some unintentionally humorous scenes, where characters make laughable, deadly decisions instead of resorting to reason.
Much of the audience blowback for The Purge involves the ending, which I want to discuss a bit. Please skip past this paragraph if you haven't seen the film, as there are going to be SPOILERS. The film sows the seeds of a neighborhood showdown early-on. A neighbor mentions they aren't having their annual purge party, but the Sandins discover this is a lie. A late-game "rescue" by several familiar faces turns out to be anything but, and several neighbors reveal their own nefarious intentions. I've read several reviews and audience comments blasting Headey's character for sparing the lives of her neighbors. The Purge isn't perfect, but it nails this ending. Had Mary suddenly gone Rambo on her captives, everything beforehand, including her compassion toward the wounded stranger and general dislike of the purge, would have been upended. This ending comes closest to living up to the premise's potential. These people will drop their weapons and go back to their homes, their kids, PTA meetings and the country club. The neighbors' envy may be uncharacteristically strong, but their actions are an interesting exploration of pent-up frustration released. SPOILERS END The overall effect of The Purge may be less than intended, but the filmmakers at least had some interesting ideas. Hawke and Headey are strong leads, and the film is bookended with intriguing moral dilemmas.
Universal delivers another typically excellent new release. This 2.40:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer adheres to the filmmakers' intended look, which is cold, sharp and detailed. Colors are often desaturated, with icy blues and blacks on display throughout the Sandin home. Detail is very impressive in both close-ups and wide shots, of which there are few. Black levels are good, and any crush is the result of how The Purge was filmed. There are no digital anomalies to report.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is active and immersive, supporting genre jolts and an aggressive sound design. Dialogue is convincingly clear, whether directional or front and center, and is never overwhelmed by effects. The requisite creaks, groans and moans of suspense play throughout the sound field, and the subwoofer is absolutely bombastic during several action bits. The proceedings are balanced nicely with the score. French and Spanish 5.1 DTS tracks are also included, as are English SDH, French and Spanish subs.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This two-disc "combo pack" includes the Blu-ray, a DVD copy of the film, and codes to redeem iTunes-compatible and UltraViolet digital copies. A foil slipcover features creepy artwork of the masked man. The only extra is the brief Surviving the Night: The Making of The Purge (8:54/HD), which includes cast and crew interviews about the concept and production.
I like the premise of The Purge, as it invites debate about the moral implications of a 12-hour window when all crime is completely legal. The film doesn't quite merit such a rigorous debate, and it suffers from an unconvincingly pedestrian midsection that fails to deviate from countless home-invasion thrillers. This world is ripe for exploration, but the film's limited budget keeps it grounded. Still, the forgettable middle is bookended with intriguing sequences, allowing me to recommended that you Rent It.