I’d like to give The Purge a good review. I admire the film’s balls, the way it comes to us with a big, almost silly central conceit and just runs with it. I love the film’s social messages, which are a little on the nose but no less admirable for it. I like everything about the movie... except the movie itself.
The premise is that crime and poverty in America have been largely eliminated by the year 2022. There’s been a new American Revolution of some sort, and the government has instituted an annual Purge Night. For 12 hours one night every year, every crime is allowed (with, it should be noted, some exceptions. Only “Class 4” and below weapons may be used, and “Level 10” and higher government officials are exempt from violence). The Purge is supposed to give people the outlet they need for their baser nature, to allow them to blow off the steam that otherwise goes into bad behavior. The savage truth is that it actually gives the rich an opportunity to murder the poor, to wipe out the segment of society that is not “contributing.”
There’s a big buy-in here, but I like that. And I bought in. I was ready for the ride. But after about twenty minutes I began to sour on the film, as it became clear that internal logic and storytelling were not going to be The Purge’s strong suits.
Ethan Hawke plays a guy who sells home security systems, which in a Purging world is a hot commodity. On the night of the latest Purge he and his family settle in for a safe evening behind solid steel blast doors, but things quickly go wrong, especially when his son takes pity on a wounded man in the street and allows him into the sanctuary of the house. That man, a black homeless vet, is pursued by a mob of white preppies (hidden behind masks, because that’s what people in home invasion movies do) who demand their prey be turned out into the street or else they’ll bust in and kill the whole family.
On paper all of this is good stuff - Hawke wrestling with whether to save his family or take a moral stand, the dynamics of these preps trying to kill a black vet, the siege structure of the story - but none of it works. For a movie set almost entirely within a single home The Purge gives us little understanding of geography. People get lost in the house and it’s not clear how big the place is... or why Hawke’s state of the art security system doesn’t include a single camera in the house. The family dynamics plain don’t work, and I found myself exasperated time and again by the way the family kept running around like idiots.
The film’s action is passable, but without the layout of the house being established it’s tough to really feel much tension or excitement. People just pop out from behind doors willy nilly, and there are at three scenes where someone is about to kill one of our leads only to be shot from off camera.
Rhys Wakefield, an Australian actor, is the film’s big standout. He’s got a young Heath Ledger quality, which makes his Patrick Bateman-esque lead preppie all the more menacing and creepy. Especially impressive is the fact that Wakefield gives almost his entire performance straight to the camera, as he spends most of the movie talking to the home's security system. Hawke is fine, if not particularly interesting, while Lena Headey is almost bizarrely generic in her role as the matriarch of the family.
Writer/director James DeMonaco has ambition, but the movie ends up exceeding his grasp. As the movie turns into an action film - Die Hard With The Strangers, more or less - I zoned out even as the kills brought cheers from the audience. The violence in The Purge is fine, but almost all of it happens to characters I don’t care about or don’t find particularly menacing. It’s the kind of movie where the female home invaders skip through the halls of the house wearing diaphonous white dresses because that’s what you do in a home invasion movie, you act all weird all the time.
There’s a kernel of a great idea in The Purge, a real throwback to the high concept scifi movies of the 70s. The opening credits, which shows a feed of national Purge violence, hints at what the movie could have been. I will give The Purge this: it’s a lot less rapey than you’d expect from a movie with a premise like this. DeMonaco breaks ranks with many of his peers by not resorting to the cheapness of sexual violence to make his point. I just wish I could say more about the film in general.