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06/07/2013 07:14 am ET | Updated Aug 07, 2013

ReThink Review: The Purge - Horror and Republican Ideology

If you weren't planning on checking out the new horror movie The Purge, I don't blame you. The ads make it look like a pretty unimaginative horror flick, especially with its premise of people trapped in a house as killers in supposedly creepy masks try to make their way in for a bloodbath. And it's true -- the horror movie aspects of The Purge are pretty lackluster. But the action and, surprisingly, the political and social commentary that seems to criticize republican ideological dogma still has me pondering what I thought would be a run-of-the-mill slasher movie. I've been thinking about The Purge so much that I made two videos about it. The first is my ReThink Review of The Purge.

The second video has my thoughts on how I think The Purge illustrates flaws in some of the beliefs that today's "modern" republican party is built on. (Transcripts for both the videos follow.)

PART 1 Transcript:

The Purge is a semi-dystopian parable where crime and unemployment in the US have nearly been eradicated. But the dark secret that supposedly enables this utopia is an annual event called the Purge, a night when all laws, law enforcement, and emergency services are suspended, allowing a 12-hour government-sanctioned orgy of violence where personal and societal sins are both punished and cleansed, while those not wanting to take part seal themselves behind fortress-like security systems, if they can afford one. Now, if you put aside the fact that this is a ridiculous concept that no marginally sane population would even contemplate, you still have a pretty flawed movie. But The Purge is a lean and nicely tough piece of work with some truly heart-stopping moments of tense action and a heaping helping of intriguing social commentary that will rile conservatives if they or anyone else bothers seeing it. And I actually have so much to say about The Purge that this is going to be a first of its kind two-part rethink review.

Set in 2022 but more like a current-day alternate reality, The Purge mostly takes place in the spacious suburban home of the Sandin family. The father James (played by Ethan Hawke) is a rising star in the obviously lucrative home security business and has outfitted nearly all of the houses in his gated community, including his own, with barricades and surveillance. James' wife Mary (played by Lena Headey), resentful teenage daughter Zoey (played by Adelaide Kane), and techy 10-year-old son Charlie (played by Max Burkholder) plan to lock themselves away until the Purge is over, while their neighbors plan to spend the night socializing or preparing for their own deadly excursions.

But things go downhill fast when a bloodied, unnamed man makes his way into the Sandins' house. The man, who seems to be a veteran and is played by Edwin Hodge, is being pursued by an armed gang of seemingly affluent, sadistic young white couples wearing creepo masks, led by a polite prep school type (played by Rhys Wakefield) who demands the Sandins give up the vet for "purging" or the weirdos will bust in and kill everyone inside.

The Purge is being marketed as a horror movie, which it technically is, though that's also the film's biggest problem. To me, The Purge isn't a horror movie -- it's a weird, violent cautionary suburban psychological thriller action fable about what would happen if the Tea Party took control of a desperate America and tried to fix things by creating a holiday based on their gun-loving, violent, racist, religious, jingoist, libertarian fantasies. Which I'll talk more about in the second video.

The problem is that the horror aspects of The Purge are cliché or ineffective, like all the tiptoeing down dark hallways with a flashlight, and especially the weirdos' supposedly creepy affectations and skulking, though Wakefield does quite a nice job as the head weirdo, and is the only one who doesn't wear a mask. It's these played-out horror movie trappings that lead to a truly laughable ending that reminds you that the whole idea of the Purge itself barely makes sense.

But in non-horror ways, The Purge works well, particularly in the tense, messy action scenes that truly got my pulse pounding, making me glad this movie took an R rating instead of a more bloodless PG-13. The performances are good, especially Hawke, and there's a welcome but understated naturalness to the dialogue between the family members. The production design is also well done, though you'll find yourself wondering how big this freaking house is that so many people can't find each other in it.

I think a lot of critics are going to dismiss The Purge, and they may be right to. You'll get a few startled jumps, but The Purge isn't satisfying as a horror movie, the concept of the Purge itself is fairly ludicrous, and it's got a crap ending. And I'm sure critics will slam The Purge for its attempts at social commentary, claiming that the movie takes itself too seriously or has a scattershot approach to addressing the issues. But while you can call it scattershot, that doesn't mean it isn't aimed, because The Purge is pointed right at conservative ideology in a way that makes it one of the most interesting movies I've seen this year. So join me at my second video on The Purge and I'll explain why.

PART 2 Transcript

While The Purge has a lot of flaws, which I talked about in my review, it's got some interesting social and political commentary that I think is directed right at Tea Baggers' faces. That's because the night of The Purge, when all laws and law enforcement are suspended and murder is legal for 12 hours, is rooted and executed based on the failed dogma of conservative ideology. And the results, predictably, aren't pretty.

The concept of the Purge, which was created by politicians calling themselves the New Founding Fathers, is based on several beliefs that strike me as distinctly conservative. The first is that people are inherently and inescapably violent and hateful and lots of them ready to kill you. Second is that justifies anyone and everyone arming themselves to the teeth in case they need to execute someone based on a personal, legal, or religious-based concept of justice. Third is that by arming and isolating yourself, preferably being white, and most importantly being wealthy, you can and deserve to seal yourself off from the suffering of the poor, unfortunate, and brown.

As you probably guessed, none of this turns out to be true, starting with that last one. As the violence escalates, Ethan Hawke's character James says what we've heard so many times after a grisly murder or yet another mass shooting -- that this sort of thing isn't supposed to happen here. Not that it shouldn't be happening anywhere, but it should be happening to someone somewhere else, which also implies that those people expect it or maybe deserve it.
As we hear a TV reporter say, Purge killings happen primarily in poorer minority neighborhoods where people can't afford expensive security systems like the ones James sells. And yes, there is a slight racial element to The Purge, with the fact that the masked weirdos are all white and the man they're chasing is black. But the weirdos' obsession with the veteran seems to have more to do with class, and that's where the shots at conservatives really come into focus.

The head weirdo (played by Rhys Wakefield) looks and sounds like he's right out of the Young Republicans, or more accurately the Mitt Romney campaign. There's a lot of religious and patriotic grandstanding, and of course using God and country to justify the most repugnant cruelty. The head weirdo tries to relate to James as being "one of our own", assuming that means white and/or affluent, and tries to reassure James that the veteran he's harboring is a "non-contributing" member of society, most likely one of the 47%, as Mitt Romney would say, or a "taker" if you're Paul Ryan or one of his Ayn Rand-worshipping fellow republicans, which is essentially all of them.

There's a question in the film if the Purge is meant to exorcise the sin of rage and violence within us all, or if it's for the more affluent who can afford bigger guns and better protection to purge society of whoever they think is unneeded or undesirable. Do I think republicans think the poor, homeless, and defenseless -- especially if they're brown -- deserve to die? Well, yes! if they're outside the womb. All you have to do is look at republicans' long record of opposition to programs that improve and prolong the lives and health of the less fortunate, like universal healthcare, food stamps, school lunches, stem cell research, hate crime legislation, unemployment, and pollution restrictions just to name a few. And it seems republicans believe that if you aren't able to save your own life, you should do the honorable thing and just die instead of being a drain on taxpayers.

But The Purge attacks conservatives from another direction, showing that it's really hard to let someone suffer and die in front of you, regardless of their sins. That no matter how well you arm, barricade, and isolate yourself, tragedy and the suffering of your fellow citizens will ultimately touch you. That you can't trust everyone to responsibly use lethal force. That when you say that it's everyone for themselves, it not only means that no one is coming to help you, but that you shouldn't help other people. And while a lot of gun nuts like to brag about how armed and ready they are to kill when there's a race war, a societal collapse, or someone tries to take their guns, The Purge shows that killing another human, even a masked psychopath, is terrifying, rarely heroic or cool, and inevitably changes you forever.

As you can see, there's a LOT going on in The Purge, way more than I expected. And while I'm a bit torn on whether to recommend it or not, I can at least say that I've definitely kept on thinking about it.

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