Is mankind inherently evil? If murder was legal, would you kill someone? Is the letter of the law the only thing preventing carnage on a massive scale? James DeMonaco’s micro-budgeted horror thriller The Purge has a lot of big questions on its mind. What a shame that it’s never given the opportunity to answer them.
The Purge imagines America in 2022 as “a nation reborn.” Poverty and crime are at all-time lows because, for twelve hours a year, citizens are given carte blanche to kill, rob, rape, destroy, you name it, in the name of purging all of their most angry base instincts. It’s a neat concept, perhaps one that doesn’t completely hold up under close scrutiny (the impoverished and starving don’t feel hungry enough to steal any other time of the year?), but one that’s innovative nonetheless.
The film narrows its scope too much by focusing on the Sandins, a wealthy family living in an affluent suburb. James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) works as a home security developer, while his wife Mary (Lena Headey) deals with the difficult kids, Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and Charlie (Max Burkholder). They live an idyllic life, until the Purge starts, and stupid/innocent Charlie momentarily lifts the fortifications to allow a man running for his life into their home. As the man’s pursuers attempt to break into their home, the Sandins find themselves fighting for their lives, and the film begins to dissolve into horror-movie cliches.
Hawke clearly embraces his ‘action-hero’ role, and he pulls it off for the most part. His fight scenes are exciting and believable. Hawke lacks the physical presence of Liam Neeson, for one, but he succeeds in holding the audience’s attention. Headey is also well-cast, showing off a dramatic range typically reserved for higher-caliber movies than this. A psychotic Rhys Wakefield plays his small part well. No one else stays on screen long enough to make an impression.
After its promising beginning, as DeMonaco showcases some of the horrific violence perpetrated during the Purge, the film becomes disappointingly bogged down by its plot, which refuses to allow The Purge to move past the home invasion subgenre to address its most compelling ideas.The film’s bigger themes are buried by ceaseless, senseless violence, frustratingly so.
Faceless baddies lunge from the shadows, blood spurts everywhere, there’s a predictable third-act twist, and none of it sticks after the credits roll. Inexplicably, the film’s only original aspect – its thought-provoking premise – is sidelined in favor of cheap, gory, toothless kicks. The audience gets few answers, and with a running time of only 85 minutes, The Purge is too slight to pull off the thoughtful social commentary it’s striving for.
The Purge is a serviceable home invasion thriller, but it gives hints that it could have been more. With such an intriguing central idea, it should have been much more. For a high-concept movie about a society reliant on heinous violence, The Purge is dismayingly tame. C+
Photo Courtesy: The Hollywood News.