Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Cinema File #204: “The Purge” Review

With science fiction, sometimes there comes a point where one's natural desire for verisimilitude must be sacrificed, with the understanding the a story's setting or main conceit need not be realistic or plausible as long as there is a larger point being made. My first hurdle walking into The Purge, which I imagine will probably be the first for many, was trying to get past the fact that its set up is something that would never believably happen, even as it tries to use that set up to explore its heady themes of violence, social inequality, and human nature. I wanted to scoff at the idea of the 12 hour lawless window, but then I was forced to acknowledge that it was no less absurd than the casual acceptance of Soylent Green, the evolution of The Planet of the Apes, or, if you prefer a more classic literary example, the exaggerated dystopia of 1984. This is not to say that The Purge is as good as any of these, either as science fiction or just in general, but I found it surprisingly easy to accept it for what it was and enjoy it despite my initial misgivings.

The Purge follows a day in the life of a family in the near future, specifically on the one day out of the year where for 12 hours, all crime becomes legal. Celebrated as we might observe Memorial Day or the 4th of July, it's called The Purge because the theory goes that it allows people to exorcise their natural violent impulses and release a year's worth of pent up aggression, which sounds like a really fun “Would You Rather” style hypothetical exercise when placing yourself into this situation, even if it doesn't seem at first blush like a solid premise for a movie. At a time when every other week seems to bring some sort of mass shooting or other tragedy, the idea that we might have a uniquely American problem with violence that requires a unique solution is not as far off as you might think, and in the context of the film, this system apparently works, as crime and poverty are all at record lows, at least if you believe the new government that invented the thing in the first place. While a simpler movie might have left it here, The Purge examines what the “success” of the film's titular event really means, and what it says about how we view crime in the real world in light of ever increasing social inequality.

Before things go off the rails, The Sandin family attempt to spend the night like they do every year, locked away in their house, which is fitted with an advanced security system and tucked away in a supposedly safe upper class gated community. They do this because they are among the few who can afford this level of safety, while the masses fend for themselves in a world gone temporarily mad. The film thankfully doesn't shy away from the obvious subtext, that perhaps to whatever extent The Purge is truly effective at reducing violent street crime, it is because of the natural reduction in the population that commits the most of it, while all the white collar criminals are safe behind blast doors. Though they may be over the top in their steadfast philosophical certainty, the villains of the film embody this concept as a group of wealthy youths participating in an annual tradition of hunting homeless people specifically to rid the world of what they consider to be the dregs of a society they own. At times the movie comes across as if it might have been written as a deliberate reaction to the resurgence of Randian Social Darwinism in our contemporary politics, and perhaps the ease with which I forgive the implausible nature of its setting is because I can't help but compare it to the even more absurd future world of Atlas Shrugged

Pictured: Going Galt

Unfortunately, this intriguing social commentary seems to be all but forgotten as soon as the action heats up, giving way to a fairly standard home invasion thriller that is only marginally well-executed. There are moments that shine, like the tense stand-off on either side of the front door between the menacingly congenial bad guy and the family's patriarch, and a particularly fun scene in what looks like the family's game room as one man squares off against a group of armed youths around a pool table. But then there are just as many moments that fall flat, most notably the extended search for the human hunters' latest target inside the house, and a completely unnecessary found footage style POV element that I suppose the producers of Paranormal Activity just couldn't resist. Realistically, I'm conflicted over whether or not the sci-fi allegory really had anywhere further to go, but just on a gut level the movie feels like a missed opportunity once the premise is turned into a spring board for a series of predictable action beats.

The film tries to bring the message back and tie everything together in a late third act twist, which is simultaneously silly and extremely rewarding. Without spoilers, we get the introduction of a larger threat that attempts to place the dichotomy between the haves and have-nots and how both groups view each other into greater perspective, but its done in such a ridiculous way that even if I were inclined to accept it, I was too busy laughing. The moment is however saved and earned by the mother played by Lena Headey, who up until that point has such a minor impact on the story that you wonder why they would have bothered hiring someone as good as her for the role. The final five minutes are her time to shine and she milks it for all its worth, giving us the final word on all this national catharsis nonsense as only a loving mother protecting her children can. 

I wonder if, as in last year's Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World, it might have been a mistake to establish something like this yearly event and then focus on the one group of people who insist on not doing anything interesting during the festivities. A lot of stuff happens to them, and the result is a generally entertaining if somewhat lackluster thriller, but I can't help but think there was a much better story that could have been set in this world if we'd actually seen more of it outside of one small neighborhood. Apparently the film's box office has already led to talk of a sequel, and as much as I wanted more from this movie, I welcome the prospect. This setting seems tailor made for an anthology format where we see how others would react to the same scenario, which has the added benefit of aligning with the natural conversation I bet most people will have coming into and out of this movie, about what they would do with 12 hours of legal immunity. Better yet, why not focus on the year in between, showing how people live with what they did, or what happened to them, and how they live with those around them knowing what monstrous things they are capable of?

In the end, I'm willing to bet that The Purge is better than a great deal of people would expect it to be, or at the very least, the things about it that I originally mocked were handled better than I ever thought was possible. If it has one central flaw, ironically, it is that it is not more outrageous in terms of those superficially silly elements, because once it becomes more relatable, it only becomes more predictable. It's not perfect, but its a fun ride that never takes itself too seriously, while at the same time establishing just enough credibility to never slip into outright farce. Its stylish and with the exception of a few minor hiccups is mostly well-paced, and there's more than enough here both in terms of suspense and cultural critique to make it worth the effort. And even if you don't enjoy it, at least if my experience is any indication, the premise alone is easily great fodder for some lively post-show debates about the film's major themes. 

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