The Purge feels like one half of a grand night out | Bleader

The Purge feels like one half of a grand night out

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Ethan Hawke under lockdown in The Purge
  • Ethan Hawke under lockdown in The Purge
The new horror movie The Purge is built around a remarkable image: a cookie-cutter mansion is transformed into a fortress, with steel blockades over all the doors and windows, so a well-to-do American family can ignore the wave of horrible violence passing through their gated community. It's the sort of image that studio filmmaking is so good at creating, rich in associations and unmarried to any clear political ideology. The mansion-fortress alternately suggests a metaphor for American isolationism, fear of terrorist attacks, the lucrative security industry, and our culture's fascination with self-defense. (And then there are times when it suggests nothing at all, asserting the inexplicable authority of something out of a dream. If René Magritte were alive today, The Purge might be his favorite film of 2013.) Seeing that the premise offers such a variety of interpretations, I'm not surprised that The Purge was this weekend's number one box office attraction—it's got something for everybody.

After it introduces this great open-ended symbol, the movie doesn't really need to do anything else. As it stands, though, The Purge is a perfectly decent genre entertainment. Writer-director James DeMonaco orchestrates the suspense so that the movie becomes steadily more frightening as it goes along—there's none of that jerkiness of subpar horror, in which the movie seems unsure of what to do between the set pieces. It's just under 80 minutes before credits, and DeMonaco uses the short running time to his advantage, eschewing anything (including characterization, it should be acknowledged) that might stand in the way of narrative momentum. The lifts from Straw Dogs and Michael Haneke's Funny Games are a little too obvious for my taste—at the same time, I was impressed to see them referenced at all in a low-budget horror movie that's being sold by its distributor, Universal, as a basic exploitation item.

That marketing campaign must have been a bit of a gamble for a summer release. This is blockbuster season, which means that every new Hollywood movie has to present itself as the latest heir to Star Wars—mythic, unforgettable, and state-of-the-art. I'm skeptical of this model. If every new release becomes a monumental event, what becomes of the more modest films that comprise the ebb and flow of habitual moviegoing? But then, contemporary Hollywood doesn't seem interested in habitual moviegoing. The big studios now put more money into fewer films, hoping to recreate the blockbuster success of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark and fostering outsize expectations for every new movie with nifty special effects.

A healthy alternative, I think, would be for the studios to keep expectations reasonable and reward spectators with more good movies. This was how American cinema used to work, back when a night at the movies meant two features, a newsreel, and a short. Films like The Purge thrived in these conditions, and directors like DeMonaco—who displayed strong formal chops but were still green in such areas as thematic concentration and directing actors—could develop their skills without having to deliver a blockbuster right out of the gate. (Conversely, I wonder if someone like Anthony Mann could have become a great filmmaker in today's climate, considering he spent almost a decade making B movies before graduating to weightier projects.) Released on its own, The Purge is a modestly popular entertainment that's soon to be overshadowed by something much bigger. If it played on a double bill with a glossier attraction—say, Now You See Me or After Earth—its virtues might shine even brighter.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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