So here I am, trying to like “The Purge” because I’m drawn to its simple and horrific premise, and it’s treating me (and you) as if we have the IQs of lawn ornaments.
Really, James DeMonaco? All you have to work with is one good idea? You have no clue how to explore it convincingly as a writer or shoot it coherently as a director?
Whom do we root for, when both the family under assault from murderous hooligans and the hooligans themselves behave like idiots? How can the climax be a surprise, when you foreshadow it so clunkily that we wince at a broad hint 10 minutes into the movie?
And yet you started so well. …
The movie begins in 2022, when unemployment has dropped to 1 percent and crime has all but vanished. The right-wing government elected in 2016 instituted The Purge, a 12-hour period each year in which every atrocity is legal, even murder. The rich barricade themselves on this hellish night, while the poor kill each other or fall victim to bands of wealthy people who pick them off for sport. (Now, there’s a way to cut down on low-income, Democratic-leaning voters.)
The main character, James Sandin, sells more security systems than anyone in town and has protected his own house well. (He’s played by Ethan Hawke, who starred in the other film DeMonaco directed, “Staten Island.”)
He comes home on Purge night to find his wife (Lena Headey) anxious about their safety, son Charlie (Max Burkholder) revolted by The Purge, and teenage Zoey (Adelaide Kane) upset because Dad won’t let her date an older guy.
Within a few minutes of lockdown, Bloody Stranger (as he’s listed in the credits) stumbles up their street, begging for help because a pal has been killed. Soft-hearted Charlie admits him. His pursuers announce they plan to slaughter this man (Edwin Hodge) and wipe out all the Sandins if they conceal him.
Because DeMonaco doesn’t give the fleeing victim any back story, he needs a way to enlist our sympathy: We want the Sandins to do the right thing, but why should they face death for a guy whose name they don’t even know? So the writer-director makes him a homeless black military veteran, while the psycho heading the assault pack – which is all white, of course – is a blond preppie in a blazer with a private school emblem. (Subtle as a cannonball in a wading pool.)
The actors do well enough, led by Hawke as a weaseling, worried dad. (The permanent furrow between his eyebrows looks like the coin slot in a vending machine.) Headey, a toughie in “300” and TV’s “Game of Thrones,” seems credible as the “please don’t kill my kids” mom, while Burkholder does well as the boy with the crisis of conscience and faith in humanity.
But they’re adrift on the queasy sea of metaphor DeMonaco supplies. Why should this Purge have eradicated the need or desire for crime on every other night of the year? (Wouldn’t it have increased the desire to let the demons out, especially among people who were sick or sleeping or on vacation during the fatal 12 hours?) Obama has many a detractor, but this movie supposes that his political replacement instituted the Purge within two months of taking office, and Americans embraced it at once.
DeMonaco may believe we’re in (or headed for) a class war that will benefit the rich and wipe out the poor. (No one in the film belongs to the middle class, except an unseen secretary.) But when his movie couches this view in such ridiculous terms, it creates the effect opposite to the one intended: Viewers go away saying, “Well, nothing to think about here.” All but those who gleefully applauded the revenge butchery in the preview screening, anyhow – and they probably weren’t thinking at all.
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