Starring: Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Max Burkholder
Directed by: James DeMonaco (“Little New York”)
Written by: James DeMonaco (“Assault on Precinct 13”)
It’s not so much that director/writer James DeMonaco’s new dystopian thriller “The Purge” is so ridiculously delivered despite its somewhat intriguing premise; it’s that from the moment DeMonaco (“Little New York”) presents the audience with this formidable set-up, he doesn’t have a clue what to do with it. What’s even more insulting is that he pretends he does by dragging his two-cent characters through a gauntlet of mindless violence that also never gets to the core of the matter. “The Purge” masks itself as a complex morality tale that can trigger debate, but DeMonaco couldn’t care less what the answers are to the questions he thinks he’s asking.
Set in the year 2022, the U.S. government is now controlled by the “New Founding Fathers” who have turned the country around by eliminating crime and bringing unemployment down to an all-time low. In an attempt to weed out the weakest Americans while also allowing people to blow off some steam, the government has created an event known as “the Purge,” a 12-hour window where once a year people can commit any crime they want legally. “It’s a release for all the hate and violence and aggression they keep inside them,” one character explains.
For more affluent Americans (the 1 percent), who can afford the most state-of-the-art security systems (and who are not interested in participating in the Purge themselves), the evening of maiming and murdering isn’t much cause for concern since they can basically confine themselves inside their fortress homes. That’s what James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) and his family have done every year. This year, however, things take a turn for the worse when a group of sadistic preppies (think Funny Games with masks) try to break into the family’s home when a stranger (Edwin Hodge) they intended to kill escapes and hides out in the Sandin’s house. Now the question is, should James give the masked murderers what they want and toss out their prey or should he hunker down and hope they don’t get in and mutilate everyone with their machetes.
No, actually, the real question is: should anyone care? With no emotional connection to the family or the stranger, DeMonaco hasn’t given us much reason to root for either side. Statistics show the Purge has worked in eliminating poverty and crime (“This night saved our country,” James says), but is that enough to warrant the death of a poor, innocent human being? And why are we even debating these questions anyway when it’s evident that DeMonaco would rather just kick the door down and put an ax in someone’s back as quickly as possible?
With all the flat characterizations written throughout the film, the worst has to be the leader of the purgers (Rhys Wakefield) who stands outside the house with everyone else like Abercrombie & Fitch models if Abercrombie & Fitch marketed their clothing to the criminally insane. Wakefield’s character is a caricature and his motives are never clear. At one point, he says he uses the Pruge to “cleanse his soul.” In another scene, he shoots a masked friend of his in the head for screaming too loud, a sign that the Purge itself really isn’t what drives him to kill. Are we to believe all purgers are this crazy? If it’s so easy for him to kill one of his own, why doesn’t he stop wasting time and just go find someone else to torture? And why the hell are the rest of the vigilantes horsing around like they’re four year old children at a Chuck E Cheese birthday party? Is their immature behavior supposed to prove they lack a conscious? Is that supposed to instill even more fear into their victims or the audience?
None of it makes a much sense, honestly. By the end of the film, we’re left with a pile of dead bodies and a final scene so laughable moviegoers will wonder if DeMonaco is serious or at a loss for how to wrap things up. Whatever the case may be, he fails. There is no message about the unjust class system or some psychological take on what the decriminalization of murder is going to do to people who act on it. “The Purge” wishes it had more to say. And even at a quick 85 minutes, audiences will wish it had less.