When a movie provokes a ton of earnest online discussion and pisses off the talking heads at FOX News, it can’t be all bad, can it? It can.
The Purge is a huge teaser of a daringly absurd premise without a story to match. It’s a routine home-invasion thriller dressed up as a chilling dystopian vision of antigovernment ideologies run amok.
The year is 2022, opening titles inform us, and the U.S. is under a new regime that has reduced unemployment to 1 percent and virtually eliminated crime. How? Once a year, for 12 hours known as Purge Night, citizens are allowed — nay, encouraged — to go out and commit any atrocities they please. Only heavy weaponry and certain federal employees are off limits, emergency services are offline, and no one is prosecuted in the morning.
Let’s leave aside for a second everything that makes this scenario stupid. (Can a single night of “purging” deter crimes of passion? Career criminals? Who’s going to support a government that declares a free-for-all for pedophiles and psychopaths?) For now, let’s accept the premise that Purge Night has become a hallowed American tradition. Let’s also accept writer-director James DeMonaco’s leftist corollary that much of the crime happening on that night is class based, with well-armed, well-off citizens seizing the opportunity to cull the ranks of the poor.
Now, imagine the stories that premise could spawn if it took place in the inner city. Imagine indigent senior citizens, the homeless and welfare moms organizing themselves into battalions to fight the onslaught. Imagine full-on class warfare in the streets, no cops allowed. There’s a setup for a B-movie.
Instead, DeMonaco has chosen to focus on the Purge Night ordeal of one white-bread family in a gated community. Dad (Ethan Hawke) has made a mint selling security systems to his neighbors, so he’s confident that his own defenses will protect his McMansion and his brittle wife (Lena Headey), sullen teen daughter (Adelaide Kane) and weirdo son (Max Burkholder).
Naturally, he’s proved wrong when his son allows a wandering homeless veteran (Edwin Hodge) to take refuge in their home. Soon a band of marauding preppies show up on the doorstep, cavorting with cleavers while their leader (Rhys Wakefield) does his damnedest to channel Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. They promise to spare the family — at an ugly price.
This moral dilemma leads to at least one scene that, viewed out of context, would be genuinely disturbing on several levels. In context, however, it’s just part of a deadeningly dull, repetitive, poorly choreographed cat-and-mouse game, as family members and intruders scuttle around the cavernous house with weapons.
The jump scares are many, the real shocks few and the characters so thin that it’s impossible to care about them. Given that the movie’s message hinges on the reminder that the homeless guy is a valuable human being, too, it might have behooved DeMonaco to give him more to say. Instead, he remains a cipher and a plot contrivance.
If The Purge had succeeded in being what it ostensibly aims to be — an edge-of-your-seat thriller — it might have betrayed its own antiviolence preaching by being fun. If it had been the work of a brilliant director like Michael Haneke, it might have elucidated why people want to “purge” and challenged us to think differently. As it is, DeMonaco makes his point, but it’s one that only resonates in the improbable scenario he’s concocted. Let’s all just agree that Purge Night is a terrible idea.