“The Purge” functions equally well as either conservative or anarchist wish fulfillment.
By JON NICCUM
Special to The Star
In this futuristic horror-thriller, all crime is legal for one 12-hour period each year. This allows the elite class to rid themselves of the “non-producing members of society” — i.e. the poor. But it also lets anyone indulge in pure violent chaos.
A typical suburban family gets reluctantly drawn into this annual ritual. Their harrowing night delivers both sly political subtext and straight-up action.
Ethan Hawke stars as James Sandin, a true believer — albeit a rather passive one — in the American government of 2022. A recent sea change ushered in the New Founding Fathers, who introduced this cathartic solution.
“You don’t remember how bad it was. The crime. The poverty. This night saved our country,” James tells teenage daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane).
James has become rich selling home security systems to his Purge-prepping neighbors. Like previous years, he holes up in his fortified mansion with Zoey, younger son Charlie (Max Burkholder) and wife Mary (Lena Headey) to watch coverage of the event on TV. But when Metallica-haired Charlie (somebody should purge the kid’s barber) gives refuge to a homeless man (Edwin Hodge), he draws the ire of a roving mob of young thrill-killers. They demand the Sandins cast out their unwanted guest … or else.
Despite all these security features, James admits, “It’s not built for worst-case scenarios.”
Writer-director James DeMonaco dreams up plenty of indoor worst-case scenarios as the outside ones come crashing in. He orchestrates tense, wordless sequences with the Sandins playing cat-and-mouse games in their darkened home when they can’t find their anonymous visitor.
An added creepy touch is a remote-controlled toy that Charlie uses to spy on people. He’s attached a charred baby doll to it with a glowing eye that looks like a half-destroyed Terminator.
The picture builds into a visceral “Straw Dogs” showdown (a favorite theme for DeMonaco, who also penned Hawke’s “Assault on Precinct 13” remake.) Yet it’s the ethical dilemmas confronted by the family that elevate the project beyond its horror foundation.
The movie offers an allegory for how real-world problems inevitably make their way to everyone’s block, no matter how they are shielded against or ignored. Admirably, “The Purge” never gets preachy, and it also implies even the noblest actions can produce grim consequences.
The one thing that fails miserably is the masked invaders. Their frozen, exaggerated expressions look like the villains from the 2008 home-invasion flick “The Strangers.” But their behavior feels forced, whether it’s the childlike mannerisms of the female gang members or the stagy leader (Rhys Wakefield, billed as the Polite Stranger). With his long blond hair and prep-school blazer, he already looks like a member of the lacrosse team gone rogue. To couple this with Shakespearean diction only makes his scenes cutesy, undercutting the realistically bland suburban vibe.
How much scarier would this character be if he said very little? Or if he never showed his face?
With all its political, social and moral implications, the premise of “The Purge” is disturbing enough. No need to turn its menace into Halloween costumes.