Written and Directed by: James DeMonaco
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, and Max Burkholder
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Survive the night.
Thereís an inherent contradiction to The Purge thatís difficult to get pastóit might be a high-minded, speculative thriller that arrives with an inherently silly and broad concept, but it trades in its psychological and moral intrigue for basic visceral ďthrillsĒ inside the walls of a forgettable home invasion movie. It does its best to enfold viewers in its twisted dystopia, where all semblance of morality gets lost in the void of an annual 12-hour window where all crime (including murder) is legal, a premise rife with obvious allegorical implications that are given surface level consideration. Unfortunately, The Purge is content to lapse into predictable sequences involving characters stumbling around a dark house waiting to kill or be killedóitís the most primal of concepts that relegates the filmís hook to literal background noise.
Itís foregrounded well enough at first, as a series of eerie live feeds from past Purges introduce us to an ominous future America thatís lorded over by a cadre of New Founding Fathers. Their annual event has been designed as a cathartic release for the nationís pent up aggression and hatred, but snippets of talk radio reveal a more sinister, underlying intent to rid the country of its homeless and poor in an effort to help out the economy. The result is a world of haves and have-nots, and James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) is definitely one of the former, having amassed a comfortable lifestyle peddling high-tech security systems designed for The Purge. With the annual night upon them, he and his family settle in to ride out the event in their heavily fortified home. The plan hits a snag when the conscientious son (Max Burkholder) decides to shelter a stranger in peril (Edwin Hodge), which draws the ire of a pack of bloodthirsty psychos hell bent on purging.
Letís get past the obvious: The Purge requires a firm suspension of disbelief and an acceptance of the notion that the majority of people with criminal (and homicidal) intent would be willing to contain themselves for an entire year (if nothing else, the film has a relatively optimistic outlook on mental health in this respect). One also has to buy into the nihilistic idea that human nature truly is governed by laws and not some inner sense of morality (call me crazy, but I refrain from murder because it seems like a shitty thing to do, not because itís illegal). Essentially, The Purge would make a great scenario for Lawrence Kohlbergís stages of moral development, even if the film itself envisions a future where everyone is operating on the middling levels.
And thatís the most terrifying thing about The Purge and why itís sort of easy to buy into the concept. After all, you donít have to necessarily believe in ghosts to be spooked by Paranormal Activity; sometimes, the notion that something could happen is enough, and I found the all-too-brief world building to be the most eerie part of The Purge. Itís the quiet stuff thatís unsettling. The night of the Purge itself is like the anti-Christmas, where everyoneís on edge because they arenít quite sure if theyíll even be alive the next day; on a national level, it presents a country thatís given itself over to ritualized madness for the sake of the greater good, which highlights our own, modern complicity in trading dwindling civil liberties for security. Itís an America where the 99% are literally offered up as a sacrifice to the ravenous, disdainful 1% that even place plants in their front yards to show their support for The Purge. Thereís a really weird Stepford vibe to it.
Class warfare becomes the filmís most obvious preoccupation before the bloodletting takes hold. The Purge finds a good site for this conflict, as the affluent, white Sandins find themselves unwittingly housing a disenfranchised, African-American war vet. Before arriving at this point, we learn that theyíre a slightly dysfunctional family with a sort of bratty teenage daughter (Adelaide Kane) who is seeing an older boy (Tony Oller), much to her fatherís dismay (and the audienceís since it adds an obligatory familial drama subplot that only pays off with pure shock value). They seem decent and purely white-bread enough to serve as an average American family set to endure the hellish moral quandary that arrives with the stranger. To its credit, The Purge engages this by flipping the usual home invasion dynamic around a bit, as the Sandins must snuff out the stranger in their own home and decide whether or not to sacrifice him to the horde gathering outside of their home.
Once the film gets past this and moves into the actual siege, it deflates rapidly, especially since itís tough to completely side with most of the Sandins given their treatment of this completely innocent guy. Indeed, the battered, bloodied stranger (who is only made to be more battered and bloodied once James is done with him) is basically the hero of the movie that gets sidelined for the horribly tedious middle act that hits the requisite stalk and slash beats. Only one part of this act can be considered an honest-to-god sequence (it involves Hawke, a pool table, and a slew of baddies to be dispatched) since it mostly finds everyone poking about, hiding, and being discovered within a darkly lit and poorly spaced environment.
Nearly each of these moments features the same punctuation, as they all inevitably come down to someone being bailed out after being held at gunpoint. Thereís no sense of escalation to it and instead becomes a parade of useless characters perpetrating violence against their (mostly) faceless, nameless counterparts. During this stretch, itís easy to forget the hook that brought you here in the first place since The Purge becomes another suburban nightmare that awakens the inner savage in an average American family. Wes Craven was up to this forty years ago, and, despite its premise, The Purge offers little more insight.
The film does try to course correct on that front with a conclusion that attempts to subvert but only highlights the concept's absurdity since it confirms that everyone is pretty much okay with returning to their daily routine as soon as the sun rises. I suppose everyone just washes the blood from their hands and gets set to endure a yearís worth of awkward barbecues and house parties. As ridiculous as the conclusion is, it at least highlights the central premise; the group of psychopaths that terrorizes the Sandins for much of the film are garden variety weirdoes that strike me as the type of people that could show up in any horror movie. When The Purge presents average Joes engaged in horrific activity, it paints a disturbing portrait of a petty suburbia twisted by visions of upward mobility; digging a little deeper here reveals a world where the middle class have implicated themselves as pawns of the filthy richófolks like the Sandins and their neighbors fancy themselves as the 1%, but theyíre really just part of the 99% that enable the wolves to prey before feasting upon themselves.
The Purge has occassionaly flashes of genuine effectiveness. Its central concept is responsible for most of them, but there are other highlights: Rhys Wakefield is great as the leader of the murderous pack, as heís putting on a mannered, disarmingly polite performance that recalls the sociopaths from Funny Games. His troupe wear masks that are sort of apropos of nothing (and will invite comparisons The Strangers) but make for eerie visuals nonetheless. This is a Jason Blum joint, so other creepy stuff is scattered throughout the houseís life feed footage to give an air of authenticity and immediacy. While the film expectedly features characters hovering over monitors and observing stuff, a pivotal scene employs a neat camera trick with one of the sonís radio-controlled toys.
Whatever inventiveness The Purge shows (and it doesnít show a whole lot) is surface level stuff like that. Itís obviously unfair to judge a movie by what it isnít, but I canít help but think this concept deserves a different type of film that could stretch beyond the confines of the restrictive home invasion genre, especially since this film doesnít even excel in that mode. Universal has already announced a sequel, and I hope it takes a cue from the Fast & Furious series by refusing to simply retread since this is a dystopian world thatís worth exploring on a different scale. If this film proves to be as profitable as previous Blumhouse entries, I have no doubt that The Purge will appropriately become an annual eventóletís just hope it's more memorable in the future. For a film that's centered around the catharsis of bloodshed, The Purge is a dull, hollow fit of violence. Rent it!
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