In The Purge we witness an imminent future (the year 2020) in which America has created a new system for controlling crime, violence and poverty. Known as the annual “Purge,” the ‘new founding fathers’ declare that for one day every year, all crime is legal while emergency and law enforcement services are shut down for a span of twelve hours.
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James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) is a top salesman at a security systems firm, who lives with his wife Mary (Lena Headey), daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and gifted son Charlie (Max Burkholder) in a wealthy gated community, whose pristine streets are spared from the annual night of savagery. Things go horribly wrong when sympathetic Charlie allows a wounded man (Edwin Hodge) to take refuge in the Sandin’s home, thereby attracting a posse of murderous upper-crust socialites, who demand the Sandins return the group’s lost quarry… or face brutal consequences.
The Purge is basically Shirley Jackson’s seminal horror story “The Lottery” refashioned as a quasi-philosophical, B-movie horror/thriller. Whenever the film is delving into philosophical quandary and social commentary, it is often an excellent piece of work; unfortunately, that excellence is dragged down by silly horror movie cliches and some lackluster characters. Overall, though, the movie is a tightly-paced and effective thrill-ride experience.
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James DeMonaco both wrote and directed the The Purge. While his director credits are short (this film and an indie flick called Little New York), his writing resume includes such memorable (but still B-movie-level) thrillers like The Negotiator and the 2005 Assault on Precinct 13 remake, which also starred Ethan Hawke. Like those aforementioned films, The Purge is a very tightly-paced and well-staged thriller, and DeMonaco (along with veteran cinematographer Jacques Jouffret) manages to turn the single-setting into a proper horror movie set piece. In general, the entire movie is surprisingly well-crafted and creates a definite atmosphere of second-to-second tension, with a few good horror scares and thrilling action sequences, to boot.
On the script side of things, DeMonaco is clearly borrowing from Jackson’s story of complacency and tradition run amok, but he puts what he borrows to pretty good use in terms of crafting an interesting premise which engenders a simple but deliciously twisted spin on the survival-horror sub-genre. The most unnerving thing about The Purge is that the concept creates a sort of ‘Body Snatchers-type fear; no one can be sure how anyone around them is going to react, given the opportunity for violence, which keeps things uncertain and edgy.
DeMonaco’s tale, while often obvious and heavy-handed (but subtly brilliant at other times), is nonetheless a piercing head-trip in terms of core themes. In fact, watching it in theaters – watching audiences howling and cheering for gruesome violence – is enough to fill your head with dread about who your neighbor in the next seat truly is – or at least would be, given an opportunity to “purge themselves.” There is definitely something unnervingly relevant and timely about The Purge and its commentary on our collective (and respective) psychology – just as Jackson’s ”Lottery” still has frightening resonation more than sixty years later. For those concerned: The Purge is not so much political as philosophical, and – given its approach to the subject matter – is generally one of the better horror/thriller concepts to come along in awhile.
Now for the rub…
Married to this intriguing premise and timely commentary is a schlocky horror flick, filled with big logical gaps and a few hollow characters who only exist to serve the film’s manic plotline. While Ethan Hawke (Sinister) and Lena Headey (Game of Thrones) are both top-notch in their respective roles as Mr. & Mrs. Sandin, their children – played by Parenthood star Max Burkholder and Power Rangers R.P.M. star Adelaide Kane – are (in no uncertain terms) poorly-drawn horror movie cliches.
Young Charlie and teenage Zoey are literally walking MacGuffins who flit in and out of the shadows at different points (according to some vague narrative logic) solely to force the adult characters (and the audience) to constantly seek some new objective in the house or examine their morals – all while the threat of danger to the Sandin brood keeps things on the razor’s edge of tension. Burkholder does as well as he can with his part, but Kane’s acting, like her character, sinks deep into annoying caricature territory.
On the other hand, we are given some better characters in the form of our “villains,” a roving band of elitist psychos in smiley face masks (why complicate things with names?). Their leader (credited as “Polite Stranger” and played by Rhys Wakefield) is a pretty freaky guy, who does about as well as one can with his on-the-nose monologes about society’s “proper order” and such. Edwin Hodge (Cougar Town) is equally good as the “Bloody Stranger” the Sandins take in, keeping his nature vague but interesting enough to pull off one of the film’s better arcs. The third act pushes things (and a few of the actors in the ensemble) into a campy realm of melodrama, before settling into what is either one of the most brilliantly witty or awkwardly terrible conclusions to a horror/thriller film that I’ve seen.
Despiite ending on a strange note, and containing some cliched horror movie characters and tropes, The Purge is an easily commendable film to those who like the short, sweet, and cathartic violent enjoyment of a solid thriller – and/or those who enjoy entertaining movies that also leave you with something to think about. Those looking for a good horror movie might not get the “scares” they want – but tension they will enjoy in earnest, along with a few good laughs at those “I’m going in the basement alone” moments in the script. All in all, a solid bit of work from Mr. DeMonaco.
…Whom we should all thank when real-life “Purge Clubs” start showing up in neighborhoods nationwide.