“The Purge” is a high-concept thriller with a low budget and an even lower amount of thought put into its plot. There’s potential in the premise, which allows for all sorts of bloodletting, suspenseful situations, and a healthy dose of political commentary, if that’s your thing. And it is writer/director James DeMonaco’s thing, though his execution of the film is so clumsy that it’s impossible to take the politics seriously, and the violence along with it.
That premise: In 2022, a mere stone’s throw away by the standards of civilization, America is controlled by the New Founding Fathers, a thinly-veiled version of the Tea Party. In case the thin veil still obstructed your view, the filmmakers have confirmed such in interviews, but never mind. Once a year, there is a 12 hour period known as the Purge, where law is suspended and the populace is allowed to do as it pleases, which of course results in a lot of violence. This supposedly creates year-round lows of violent crime and unemployment of only 1 percent, though exactly how, the movie ain’t saying.
Serious question: If this event were to actually occur, who would you fear? I propose that most of the violence would be committed by family members and friends, who might have a more compelling reason to want you dead than mere bloodlust. But in “The Purge,” it’s suggested that the worst damage would be done by packs of rich people eager to execute the poor. Now, think of the average entitled rich kid. Does it seem likely that many of them would put their safety on the line just to go hunting the homeless? I’ve got an insight that one might argue is even scarier than what the film suggests, which is that those rich kids couldn’t care less about the homeless, as game or otherwise.
The film’s focus is the Sandins, a wealthy nuclear family waiting out the Purge in their fortress of a McMansion. Patriarch James (Ethan Hawke) got rich off selling security systems specifically for this occasion, which stirs up resentment from his wealthy neighbors for reasons that don’t quite make sense. Wife Mary (Lena Headey) and teen kids Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and Charlie (Max Burkholder) are all clearly uncomfortable with the Purge, which is positioned in this society as something intensely patriotic. “You don’t remember how bad it was,” James tells his children about crime before the Purge, a line that would have sounded better had the film been made during the ’70s. But so unbothered by everything is James that he almost lets the carnage begin without arming his elaborate security system, which is either a sign that he is emphatically undisturbed and unthreatened by the event or, more likely, that DeMonaco needed to work harder during the revision part of his screenwriting process.
The Purge itself leaves open some questions. There’s a rule against “Class 4 weapons,” but how is this enforced? If medical services are suspended, what happens to those already in the hospital? Are those spots guarded? Why do the characters treat the 7 a.m. deadline very seriously when it would take the police days to begin to take in the scope of the damage? Wouldn’t the property damage alone far outweigh the absurd benefits of such an event? Don’t think about it too much, the filmmakers might say, because thinking is the kryptonite of stupid movies like this.
After the Purge begins, Charlie witnesses a homeless man (Edwin Hodge) fleeing a group of the aforementioned rich kids, and feeling pangs of sympathy, lets the guy in the house. Shortly after, the rich kids show up, decked out in silly masks for aesthetic reasons since the concealment makes no practical sense, demanding that the Sandins serve up the homeless man to them, or they’ll break into the house and massacre the whole family.
From there begins a series of cat-and-mouse games in the house, with the family tracking down the homeless man (the masked kids cut the power, conveniently), and later defending against an onslaught of the murderous preppies. The action is admittedly well-paced once it begins, with some bloody, tense encounters, though DeMonaco’s direction, largely occurring in the dark, bland halls of the house, lacks a spatial coherency, making it hard to tell who is where, when. Not to mention, all the defense-related violence coexists rather uneasily with the films bleeding-heart liberalism.
The tension that does come across is undercut by the glut of preposterous and unlikely character acts. Chiefly annoying are the Sandin kids, who wander around the house somewhat aimlessly with no regard for the danger they’re in, and the attackers themselves, who break into the McFortress only to stroll around unarmed as James blows them to pieces with a shotgun. Even those who respond to the film’s genre elements are forced to acknowledge that the film isn’t strong enough to negate these logical flaws.
So “The Purge” squanders its premise to become a humdrum thriller. Furthermore, the film’s ostentatious politicking frequently breaks any sort of spell it might have, as when a villain refers to his group as the “haves,” or another breaks into a ridiculous religious chant celebrating the Purge. Though Hawke and Headey are appealing in their roles, they can do little to stem the tide against the script’s overall preposterousness, which taints nearly everything with a note of insincerity. Here’s hoping that the inevitable wave of sequels find something more compelling to do with a general concept that could be quite effective in capable hands.