There has been much criticism that the very premise of The Purge is riddled with more plot holes than Ethan Hawke has genre movies on his CV. The year is 2022 and America has almost no crime, except on one day of the year when citizens can kill, maim, mutilate and butcher anyone they like without any repercussions.
Okay so any sensible person would get the hell out of Dodge, and at what point would any population even begin to accept such a crazy law in the first place? But let’s suspend some disbelief people. I mean, could New York really be turned into prison? Could we actually accept our deaths willingly at the age of 30? Could a dead skinny retarded boy really jump out of a lake and then age into a giant man with a hockey mask fetish? Sometimes when a filmmaker comes up with a premise, you just have to go with it. And The Purge is, while not a totally robust idea, an intriguing one. Indeed the film attempts to deal with a number of problems currently troubling the western world with a certain amount of intelligence.
On the day of the annual purge we meet Ethan Hawke, his wife Lena Headey and their two kids. It is a typical nuclear family; although there is no dog, which quite frankly is a relief because I’m sick of seeing dogs die in horror movies. Hawke has made some good money out of the purge by selling slightly unsafe security systems to his neighbours. He also has the same devices securing his own home, which seems to be asking for trouble if you ask me. And trouble is what he gets.
While the film is essentially a house-under-siege movie, the premise brings up some interesting subjects. The young son lets a wounded man into the family home to prevent him from being murdered in the street. We see numerous comments on TV editorials about how the poor are the ones who suffer the most during this day of carnage and at first you think it’s purely due to the rich being able to lock themselves up in their castles. However, the man let into the family home is a vagrant and his pursuers and would-be murderers are rich kids who believe the man’s only reason for being, is so they can have fun killing him. The rich use the poor as sport, acting as if on a fox-hunt, except their prey is the two-legged variety. Particularly vulnerable are the homeless members of the underclass, left exposed and totally unable to defend themselves against the parasitic rich. It’s an interesting swap from the rhetoric of current governments’ and the media, where the poor are shown as stealing from taxpayers by exploiting the benefits system. Here, the upper-classes are exploiting a law aimed at lowering overall violence levels, so that they can commit horrendous ‘crimes’ for the fun of it and go unpunished. All we ever learn about the vagrant is that he wears dog-tags, suggesting he served his country in the armed forces and this says all we need to know about who his potential killers are and their obvious failure to understand why and how people sometimes end up with nothing.
Hawke here represents one half of a dynamic that surrounds the Purge. He is the alpha male head of household, proud of the ideal behind the Purge and its resulting ‘low crime statistics’. This is juxtaposed against Headey as the peaceful half of the parental unit. Hawke in some ways is correct, if they just hand over the vagrant the body count will be much less, but the higher price comes with giving in to the violence and immoral urges and the effect this has on all our humanity. Headey cannot stand by and watch her children become degraded by and blasé to the violence surrounding them, and cannot accept her husband leading by such a bad example.
There is also some fun digs at the American Constitution and the fact violent behaviour is in many ways an ingrained aspect and acceptable part of the American spirit. This is most explicit during a scene when a family is about to be executed, their murderers pledge allegiance to the Founding Fathers. Yeah, I’m not saying it’s subtle in any way, but at least they’re trying, which is quite unusual for a Platinum Dunes production.
So there’s some good stuff here, but ultimately it is a home invasion thriller with a high concept twist and the main problem is that it’s not all that thrilling. It doesn’t rack up enough tension, suspense and indeed thrills that the best films of this type do. Assault on Precinct 13 or The Strangers are tightly wound knots of tension in comparison. The Purge has a lot of wandering around in the dark, shooting at anything that moves…Much like the heavy-handed messages in the script.
However, things tick along at a decent rate and it’s an entertaining and semi-thoughtful way to spend one’s time. The masks the Purgers wear are blankly horrific with their cheery plastic smiles. Rhys Wakefield as “Polite Leader” is a right creepy bastard who you just want to slap, and is almost enough of a reason to do a bit of your own Purging. And of course it’s good to see Ethan Hawke continue his quest to be in a horror movie at least once a year. Next I want to see him go all method as Jason Voorhees in the proposed found-footage version of Friday the 13th. Go on Ethan, you know you want to…