Silver Screen: The Purge *
It's a little lofty to call the cheapie horror flick The Purge a high-concept thriller. It's maybe a medium-concept movie, or at best a movie with a concept that requires you to go get a chair from the kitchen to reach it.
The nifty premise suggests the kind of B-movie social critique you might've expected in the 1970s, produced by Roger Corman or directed by John Carpenter, with shades of Death Race, Assault on Precinct Thirteen, and Escape from L.A.: To alleviate social tensions--- and perhaps to keep the lower-class population in check--- once a year for twelve hours, emergency services are suspended and all crime is legal.
The characters, living in America circa 2022, frequently allude to the terrible condition the country was in before the purge was instituted by “the new founding fathers.” The details of how exactly the purge significantly reduced budget deficits and fixed unemployment, much less who these new founding fathers are, is left frustratingly vague. Writer/director James DeMonaco creates this elaborate backstory only to use it as an excuse for a pretty generic home-invasion story. Perhaps that's no surprise, as DeMonaco is responsible for the neutered remake of Carpenter's Assault on Precinct Thirteen featuring--- guess who?--- Ethan Hawke.
Hawke here stars as James Sandin, a wealthy designer of security systems whose fortunes have grown thanks to the purge. His own home, safely tucked away in a gated community, is locked down for purge night. His son Charlie (Max Birkholder) is disturbed by the bloody holiday, but his wife Mary (The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Game of Thrones' Lena Headey) is blasé about the new tradition, and his teenage daughter Zoey views it as a just a temporary distraction from her boyfriend. They're forced to confront the grim reality of the human harvest when sympathetic Charlie opens their home to a nameless homeless man (Edwin Hodge) who runs down their suburban street seeking asylum from a group of kill-crazed college kids led by a grinning, anonymous murderer (Rhys Wakefield).
The debate over whether or not the family, for their own safety, should hand over the homeless stranger is just about enough plot to fill a good episode of The Twilight Zone. DeMonaco attempts to reinforce the story with a weird non-sequitur about Zoey's boyfriend's potentially murderous purge plans, but neither storyline seems nearly as exciting as the broader activities of the purge itself, which is here reduced to fleeting events on TV screens in the background as though it were a weather event affecting a different continent entirely. The notion that these events are in part perpetuated by our characters, yet the dire effects have heretofore only affected people in other communities, is just one of the potentially interesting ideas the movie brushes up against in its rush to get the bloody violence going.
Politically, The Purge is all over the map. The invention of a corporate-approved governmental culling of the poor is a leftist nightmare, yet once the movie shifts into action it's a Peckinpah-fueled masculinity trip in which our hero must defend his family with a fetishized home arsenal. Despite its platitudes with the homeless character, the underlying message of The Purge is a paranoid conservative fantasy: Community is a false concept that inevitably breaks down, necessitating that the individual not only prioritize his own needs but actively, violently defend himself against all others. The idea The Purge successfully articulates, albeit unintentionally, is to give us a brief glimpse of what pure libertarian state might resemble outside of Somalia.
But The Purge is not only incompletely imagined, it's poorly executed. Hawke's family is too generic and unlikeable to conjure up any real concern for their well-being, as Wakefield's performance as the ringleader of rich-kid killers is infuriatingly twitchy and over-the-top, like a cartoonish impression of Michael Pitt's truly terrifying portrait of upper-crust sadism from the American version of Funny Games. Take away the confused exposition and it's little more than a mashup of Straw Dogs and The Strangers. The Purge not only misses the point, it only pretends to try and make one.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.