The Purge Dir. James DeMonaco

[Universal Pictures; 2013]

Styles: thriller
Others: Insidious, Straw Dogs, Funny Games

I know your interest might be piqued by its fascinating premise, but trust me, just skip this film. You’ve been here before, many times, just while watching a movie made with far less unaware sanctimony. The Purge is, to quote a review that I read as a kid, written by Nathan Rabin of the AV Club about a terrible movie called Around the Fire (that is now as forgotten as The Purge one day will be), “bad in a way that only films that think they’re saying something important can be.”

Of course, it could be just another cynical attempt to shoehorn a high concept into a low-budget thriller. If writer/director James DeMonaco actually imagines that he is setting up a morally murky world with The Purge’s awkwardly established premise — as opposed to constructing a fairly sick and vaguely offensive plot device — then he is quite mistaken. By the film’s conclusion, though, it doesn’t turn out to have mattered which he intended, because his movie was too leaden to have worked as either.

In the year 2022, America has figured out how to reduce both poverty and crime to nigh on zilch: for twelve hours every year, we just suspend the law (as well as all emergency medical care) so that any citizen with hatred and/or violence in their heart has a chance to get it on out, unimpaired by the threat of repercussions. A national catharsis of look-the-other-way brutality for 1/730th of the year, in this movie’s poorly thought-out view, will sate people’s bloodlust for the other 729. Of course what really happens is that most of the criminals kill each other, thereby reducing the crime rate by reducing the population. But The Purge has very little interest in exploring this or any other hypothetical sociological outcomes of such a wild plan. “The Purge works: crime is down,” various characters keep repeating, and they’re meant to sound like the privileged trying in vain to justify their place. But what these lines really sound like are desperate attempts to add some gravity to a half-baked idea.

Ethan Hawke gets to say “The Purge works” more than any of the dozen or so other actors in the movie, and he also seems to be working the hardest to make it sound plausible. Hawke has made a handful of really good movies over the years, but he’s clearly put on his game face for this one, playing a wealthy designer of home security systems whose own system fatally, and ironically, fails him on the night of America’s annual Purge. His precocious son, who has a narratively-handy penchant for inventing creepy little gadgets for spying on people, decides to allow a homeless man through the house’s defenses when he sees the poor guy being chased by a gang of smiling, well-spoken prep school psychopaths. The latter very quickly hone in on Hawke’s fortified mansion and demand the release of their prey — a black man whose dog tags seem meant to indicate he’s a vet of whatever Iraq-like conflict is going on in 2022 — or they will tear the house down and kill everyone inside to get him.

The prep school kids, blond, blue-eyed and, if you want to trust their own bizarrely over-informative monologues, “exceptionally well-educated,” make it through the house’s armor after Hawke and his clan fail to find and release their unexpected guest. Everything after they do is a kind of half-hearted hybrid of Funny Games (the attackers are so clearly modeled after Michael Haneke’s emotionless rich kids that writer/director James DeMonaco should be paying him royalties) and Straw Dogs (though more like the mindlessly violent 2011 remake than Sam Peckinpah’s lean and sadistic original). It all could have been Children of Men — near-future world, state of chaos, possibility for a harsh look at what happens when social barriers crumble — if DeMonaco could have mustered the strength to even seem interested in the possibilities of his idea.

Instead he lets all deeper meaning go with a few withering sound bites (“The Purge hurts the poor most; they can’t afford to protect themselves”) while attempting to create a claustrophobic Grand Guignol out of every fright film tactic to have been scrubbed clean and offered back up to paying audiences for the last thirty years. So I repeat: don’t see this movie: just a paragraph above this one are a few suggestions for a crash-course in better films along the same lines. Failing those, Ethan Hawke has a different movie in theaters right now, and it couldn’t be more dissimilar.

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