Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: James DeMonaco
Writer: James DeMonaco
Producer: Jason Blum, Sebastien K. Lemercier, Michael Bay, Andrew Form, Brad Fuller
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Adelaide Kane, Max Burkholder, Edwin Hodge, Rhys Wakefield, Chris Mulkey
A family is forced to defend their home on the one night each year when all crime is legal in America.
In revealing the inspiration behind “The Purge” at the 2013 Stanley Film Festival, writer/director James DeMonaco relayed a story involving a drive in New York with his wife. Cut off by a careless driver, the husband and wife had a heart racing experience that saw their lives flash before their eyes. When the adrenaline subsided, Mrs. DeMonaco said to her husband, “if only we were allowed one a year.”
In the heat of the moment, that thought has crossed everyone’s mind at one time or another. Of course, having that thought does not make someone inherently evil, merely human. The will to act on that thought is another debate entirely. “The Purge” brings that concept into its fiction for a vision of America in 2022, when unemployment holds at just 1% and violent crime is at an historic low. Those comforting statistics come at a steep cost, however. On one night each year, Americans are allowed to gorge their inner beast when all crime becomes legal for 12 hours. This annual purge of violent behavior and criminal indulgence is what pacifies the populace for the other 364.5 days.
That plot contrivance is implausible for 2052, let alone 2022. And this is where those unable to accept the idea for the story’s sake will find themselves exiting the train before it leaves the station. The ability to enjoy and be entertained by “The Purge” goes hand in hand with the ability to buy the fiction, even temporarily. There are going to be complainers unwilling to entertain the premise for even a fleeting moment. A concept as absurd as “The Purge” births innumerable questions. Would the United Nations conceivably sanction such an activity? Who cleans up all of the bodies in the morning? Are there seasonal coroners and funeral directors like there are mall employees during Christmastime?
“The Purge” is not about the global view and it is equally uninterested in addressing those larger details. “The Purge” is simply a self-contained and controlled story that utilizes the setup. Once the premise is accepted for what it is, the film finds a way to make its mark as both class separation commentary and as a home invasion thriller.
In an impassioned performance, Ethan Hawke is an upper middle class family man who finds his home besieged when his son offers a man safety from pursuing attackers. Dressed as prep school Ivy Leaguers, those pursuers offer Hawke a simple ultimatum. Give up the man hiding in their home, or they will tear down the security doors and kill everyone inside. The decision is already morally difficult, but the problem with living in a mansion without working power is that this man is not so easily found. Lock a homicidal boyfriend of the teenage daughter behind those walls too and a planned night of watching Purge victims slaughtered live on TV becomes an unexpected fight for survival.
“The Purge” has script problems unrelated to the premise. As difficult to comprehend as the concept of The Purge is, more baffling is the depiction of the hour leading up to the annual event. People walk their dogs, bake cookies for the neighbors, and exhibit nonchalant behavior for a community about to turn murderous or cower in fear 60 minutes later. As Hawke and his family discuss their days over dinner, they almost casually remember just minutes before the warning siren, “oh hey, it’s almost time for The Purge!” The intent is to show people going about their regular routines unaffected, but who could remain composed to the point of nearly forgetting the rampage’s scheduled start time? 7pm commencement be damned. I would be holed up in my fortress for hours leading up to The Purge, ever cognizant of exactly what minute the terror was set to begin.
Being a nationwide release from a major studio, “The Purge” plays with more typical Hollywood conventions than other horror films would. The jolts are delivered via the usual jump scares, such as a closing door that has someone standing behind it. The middle act is noticeably slower than the rest of the film. As if to lengthen the story, various characters go missing for long stretches of time leading to flashlight lit searches through darkened rooms. It happens so often and for such extended periods that one cannot help but wonder, exactly how big is this house supposed to be? And once mayhem ensues, the beats are predictable regarding who shoots whom, and who will arrive in the nick of time to save someone else.
What is not predictable is the third act. Where “The Purge” bucks convention is in the arc shift regarding what the film is actually about. As formulaic as the suspense structure is, the story is much greater than a simple action piece about Ethan Hawke and the lengths to which he will go to protect his family. “The Purge” is surprisingly deeper than that and becomes more provocative in its message while imparting the visceral thrills of watching bullets tear deservedly through masked intruders.
While the scares come cheaply from the jumps, there is a Manson-esque undertone to the proceedings that fuels creepiness on a different level. The Ivy League assassins holding the home hostage wear distinctive masks, but it is their mannerisms that capture another form of terror. The women in the group hold hands and dance whimsically in flowing white dresses, reveling in the rush of anticipation for The Purge. It is eerily reminiscent of the way that the Manson Family girls marched hand in hand as they smiled and sang their way down a Los Angeles courtroom hallway. The suburban nightmare feel is unsettling. And “The Purge” conveys this tension well.
Unsurprisingly, actor Rhys Wakefield, whose angular features grant him the perfect look for the Polite Stranger terrorizing the home, admitted being influenced by Vincent Bugliosi’s “Helter Skelter.” Writer/director DeMonaco confessed a similar fascination with the crimes of the Manson Family. With the film shot only one mile from the Spahn Ranch where Charles Manson and his followers once resided, there is a definite hippie cult vibe coloring the tone.
Had “The Purge” been released in the same time period when such cults flourished, the film would have thrived without as much scrutiny over the concept. Filmgoers of the 1970’s were more tolerant and forgiving of offbeat ideas as societal allegory. Had that been the case, then contemporary college term papers would use “The Purge” to contemplate the themes and ambiguous morality explored by the film, just as they would “Soylent Green” or “Logan’s Run.”
Shot in just 20 days, the script for “The Purge” is as tight as the shooting schedule. While Hollywood style cheats are used, it is chiefly to move the story to where it needs to be in order to be poignant and entertaining. There are obvious contrivances, such as Timmy, the remote controlled robot conveniently outfitted with a night vision camera, but what the film does well is more satisfying and more interesting than its forgivable failures. When the formula recedes into the background and the mood of the film takes center stage, “The Purge” succeeds at delivering an effective mainstream horror thriller.
Review Score: 80