In the opening sequence of the new Ethan Hawke thriller, we find our society bouncing back from a collapsed economy in year 2022. Welcome to a world where there’s a one percent unemployment rate, and crime rate is non-existent. In a post-recession era of 2013 this reality seems too good to be true, so what’s the catch? For director James DeMonaco’s thriller film, it’s the purge itself.
The film wraps itself around the night of March 21, which is an event appropriately titled “the purge.” On this night the new Founding Fathers, reminiscent of the tea party, encourage people to release their anger on each other for a span of 12 hours. The police are off for the night as murder, rape, and other acts of violence are committed to release the impure and undesirable thoughts that run rampant. The purpose is to better our environment in order to control crime for the rest of the year. While the idea isn’t too far fetched it’s not fully realized in the DeMonaco thriller.
Man of the Sandin family, James (Ethan Hawke), sells home security systems. He’s on a huge upswing as everyone in his upper class gated community has bought into what he’s selling. Being old enough to remember a very different America, it’s easy to get a sense that James takes pride in what he has built for his family, and because of this he has the top of the line security system.
Preparing for the night of destruction, the Sandins, which include kids Charlie (Max Burkholder) and Zoe (Adelaide Kane), and mother Mary (Lena Headey), decide to bunker down and not partake in the purge. After Charlie feels horrible for a dying African American man screaming for help, he unlocks the flashy security system, and opens the family to become targets in their own home as they are pursued by Ivy league yuppies for harvesting their purge victim. In order for the family to survive unharmed they must find and give over the man, which brings up interesting power dynamics in the household.
This set up of the sub-genre is reminiscent of the popular film The Strangers, where psychopaths in masks target a suburban family in their home. What worked for that film gets a bit lost in exchange for the very familiar trappings of the same quick-scare tactics we’ve seen before. What should have been a real suffocating experience, as you watch the family become prisoners in their own home just doesn’t hold up like it should. This could be attributed to the fact that their purge hunters are unmasked for a great deal of the film, as the group of college-aged kids exchange threats over a video surveillance system.
The ringleader of the group is creepy with menacing smiles, and has gleeful joy about fulfilling his purge, but DeMonaco’s greatest downfall in this genre is revealing too much in his exposition than needed. Instead he relies on lazy spooks with loud banging on walls from the intruders, and quick jolts. It’s something that’s typical for slasher films, but for The Purge, which had promise as a smart thriller, felt a bit cheap.
While DeMonaco didn’t overexpose gory moments of the film, he didn’t show enough to impose a huge threat to the characters in the film. Although a blood bath shouldn’t be the first thing expected from a suspense film, the director failed to show much of anything than a group of kids menacing an unassuming family. The only slice of gore we do get is James insisting Mary to twist a letter opener in the nameless African American man’s wound as he fights getting tied up by the family. The scene had potential to be the only squeamish moment or better, a clever commentary on hypocritical suburbia, but failed with its over dramatics.
What The Purge does have going for it is its unique set up. It has the advantage of playing up on our present society’s turmoil. With the realism already set in its plot, the thriller has at least the most interesting premise we’ve seen in comparison to most films in the genre. The Purge flirts with themes of class and race, which prove to be intriguing, and it drives the film strong for the first half, but in order to get a ghoulish response from the audience, its points feel a bit rushed.
The film takes on a big brother effect, as announcements are on television sets, encouraging the upper classes to eliminate the homeless who “aren’t contributing to society.” These announcements speak a bit about how often we ignore the trappings of our own society. While the fact that a homeless African American man, complete with dog tags, is the main target by a bunch of blonde-haired trust fund babies does say something about the racial lines of society, but like the film as a whole, it just doesn’t say enough.
THE PURGE HITS THEATERS FRIDAY, JUNE 7.