United States. 93 minutes. Directed by James DeMonaco, 2013. Starring Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Max Burkholder, Adelaide Kane, Edwin Hodge, Rhys Wakefield.
The United States of America, 2022. After years of high crime and unemployment, the “New Founding Fathers” have implemented a program known as “the Purge”: on one night a year, for twelve hours, all emergency services are suspended and all criminal activity is legal, up to and including murder. James Sandin has made his fortune from selling security systems to wealthy families who wish to fortify their homes and make themselves safer from Purge-related crime. But things go terribly wrong when the Sandins’ son Charlie temporarily deactivates the system to provide sanctuary to a homeless man on the run from a gang of young, masked men and women who aim to kill him. The leader of the gang gives the Sandins an ultimatum: turn their quarry over, or the gang will break into the family home and Purge them as well…
If it’s one thing I can’t fault The Purge for, it’s for having ambition. In fact, it’s possible that the film–the latest effort from Jason Blum’s low-budget horror shingle Blumhouse Productions (also responsible for the Paranormal Activity and Insidious franchises, The Bay, Sinister, The Lords of Salem and Dark Skies) and writer/director James DeMonaco–is maybe a little bit too ambitious.
The idea of the Purge is a fascinating one. I’m not sure that an annual twelve-hour orgy of unrestrained violence (the victims of which, we’re constantly told, overwhelmingly come from the poor) would have quite the effect DeMonaco depicts (a drastic reduction of overall crime and a 1% unemployment rate), but I’ll put that to the side, because I’m writing a movie review, not a socio-economic essay. But it is a concept that requires a bit of scope to effectively portray, so the narrow focus on a single family dilutes the power of that concept somewhat.
It doesn’t help that the family itself–James (Ethan Hawke), wife Mary (Game of Thrones’s Lena Headey), Charlie (Parenthood’s Max Burkolder) and older daughter Zoey (Australian actress Adelaide Kane)–is extremely lacking in characterization, with James being the cocky breadwinner who doesn’t give much thought to getting rich off of other people’s fears, Mary being the one-dimensional conscience of the family, Charlie being a barely-developed rebellious tech wizard, and Zoey being the bad girl in a Catholic schoolgirl’s uniform (because all bad girls wear Catholic schoolgirl’s uniforms, it’s a federal requirement). The Sandins are a generic movie family who do generic movie family things, and the primary cast don’t do much with the scarce material they’re given. Hawke and Headey skate by on their natural charisma, and Kane is easy to look at (all the better to distract from the fact that she can’t suppress her accent for more than a couple of lines at a time), but for the most part the primary cast is a disappointment, as are their roles.
The supporting characters don’t fare much better. Just as thinly drawn are Zoey’s older boyfriend Henry (played by pop star Tony Oller) and the unnamed target (“Bloody Stranger”) of the gang’s bloodthirst (Edwin Hodge). Overall, the only cast member who impresses is another Aussie, Rhys Wakefield, as “Polite Stranger,” the story’s primary antagonist. The character has as much depth as everyone else, which is to say very little, but Wakefield steals every scene he’s in by channeling a decade and a half’s worth of other cultured maniacs, including Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman and the Pauls from both versions of Funny Games.
The storytelling itself is also somewhat lacking, both in script and direction. The social commentary is exceptionally heavy-handed and clumsy, whether it’s the cable-news discussions of how the Purge affects the poor or the fact that Hodge is the only actor of color who appears in more than a couple of scenes. DeMonaco doesn’t make much of the subtler, visual aspects of characterization, such as the Bloody Stranger’s military dog tags or the Polite Stranger’s prep-school blazer and tie. (The latter aspect, an implication that the Purge gang are teenagers themselves, is a particular disappointing missed opportunity.) The plot itself is filled with logical idiocies and dei ex machina, the endgame isn’t dramatically satisfying, and DeMonaco’s spatial sense is very problematic–it’s very hard to get a sense of where things in the Sandin house are in relation to each other even when the lights are on.
That all being said, the visual aspects aren’t all bad–DeMonaco has a great eye, and the masks worn by the Purge gang are extremely creepy (even if they are derivative of The Strangers). DeMonaco’s also got a good grip on suspense, which might come from his experience writing the screenplay for the remake of Assault on Precinct 13, the granddady of all siege thrillers.
It’s not a total wash, but one can’t help but shake the feeling that The Purge could have been better than it actually is. As a thriller, it lacks real depth and is just good enough to get by. As a propaganda piece, it lacks subtlety and effectiveness. (My politics are firmly left-wing, so it’s not like I have a problem with the film’s position.) The best that can be said about it is that it’s a decent summer timewaster, not offensively bad but not particularly memorable…at least until the inevitable sequel.