2013 - 85 minutes
Written and Directed by: James DeMonaco
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Max Burkholder, Adelaide Kane,
Edwin Hodge, Rhys Wakefield
It’s going to be very easy to purge these 85 minutes from memory. Not thrilling enough to be scary, and definitely way too shallow to be the type of social commentary it tries so hard to be, “The Purge” has nothing to hang its hat on. Or its eerie mask with exaggerated smile and plain face.
We’re told at the beginning of “The Purge” that in the year 2022 unemployment is at 1% and violent crime is nearly non-existent. This is credited to The Annual Purge: an idea from America’s New Founding Fathers (whoever they are) where for a 12-hour period all crime is legal and emergency services are suspended. Fittingly taking place overnight on the first day of spring, this annual release of all the hate and tension built-up in the population is designed as a bloody catharsis. And after venting this aggression, everyone is able to be part of a completely normal, loving, nurturing society the remaining 364.5 days of the year. Yeah, right.
Any rational person knows that this idea has precisely zero chance of actually being effective for several reasons. And I feel sorry for anyone who has a heart attack or falls down the stairs during this particular 12 hours. Terrible luck for them with no paramedics.
But let’s just go with this ridiculous notion as the framework of a movie thriller. Problem is, even if we suspend any notions of disbelief, the film plain doesn’t work. There is nothing interesting explored with the concept of an Annual Purge save a small, throwaway scene involving the motivated boyfriend of a teen girl.
Instead of building a psychological framework of a fractured society, we spend all of our time with one family in one neighborhood in what is a fairly straightforward home invasion film until an extremely goofy third act that completely goes off the rails, but at least is a little fun. None of the characters are explored in-depth and all the players in this game exist solely in service of the outlandish plot.
In a rote, bland setup we’re introduced to the well-off Sandin family. Dad James (Ethan Hawke) has made a very nice living selling security systems to protect the rich during the 12 hours of annual mayhem. So nice that his family’s house has a new addition that is the envy of their wealthy neighbors. His wife Mary (a much underused Lena Headey) has no dimension, other than being James’s wife and mother to their kids – Zoey (Adelaide Kane), the aforementioned teen girl, and pre-teen Charlie (Max Burkholder), who records his vital signs throughout the day. This practice exists only to have a moment in the film where we see his heart rate rise on his heart monitor during a stressful situation.
Shortly after The Annual Purge begins, a bloodied man (Edwin Hodge) wanders into the Sandlin’s gated neighborhood screaming for help. Young Charlie attempts to do the right thing, momentarily disables the steel-doored security system and lets the man into their home. As the man disappears into the bowels of the mansion, a masked group of ne’er-do-wells appear, stating the man is their target and if the family does not release him, they will get into the house and murder everyone inside.
The group is entirely uninteresting. Though there appear to be a dozen or so of them, we only ever see one of their faces, a blond, smiling blueblood type (Rhys Wakefield, credited as “Polite Stranger,” which reminds me of the infinitely better film “The Strangers” from 2008). The Polite Stranger has a crest on his blazer and a plaid tie just in case we don’t understand he’s a 1-percenter. The rest of the group hides behind what are supposed to be creepy, ironic masks with smiles that sort of resemble former US President Jimmy Carter.
This, of course, does not set up a pensive look at human morality and the appropriate way to act in the face of extreme danger; it sets up a movie where people walk around in the dark, run off on their own for no rational reason, and multiple shootings and stabbings occur in quick succession. There are illusions to what it means to “do the right thing,” but at a completely surface level to get to the bloodshed.
And not even the carnage is stimulating. We’re never given a true sense of the interior architecture of the home and therefore never really know where anyone is or where they are in relation to anyone else. There’s what appears to be a safe room with concealed weapons and monitors that characters appear in and disappear from whenever needed.
Thriller clichés abound at the film’s climax, with masked figures appearing in the glow of a flashlight, frightened characters holding a gun walking down a long, dark hallway, and someone hiding under a bed with feet and weapons visible around the perimeter. I counted at least 4 separate occasions where one character was ready to kill another who was helpless, only for a third person to appear in front of/behind/to the side of them off-camera to kill the would-be killer at the last possible moment. Everything is completely uninspired.
The movie tries to pretend that the purge is evidence of the chasm between the rich and poor, and an excuse to take out societal “undesirables,” but if unemployment is at 1% and everyone is perfectly happy for a vast majority of the year, how many undesirables can there be? But, at the same time, it presents ideas showing the rich are perfectly willing and ready to cannibalize each other. “The Purge” is a muddy, ugly mess with nothing to say beyond its own pettiness.
© 2013 by Blake Crane