After four weeks of hulking action blockbusters, Hollywood has finally decided to take a breather and offer up a smaller scale horror-thriller. On paper and in the Universal Studios boardroom, director James DeMonaco’s The Purge probably sounded like a great idea, but on screen, this politically charged dystopian thriller fails to elaborate on any of the razor sharp ideas it presents in the first half hour of its short-and-sweet runtime. However, credit should be given to The Purge for its attempts to be something deeper than just another home invasion movie. It tries hard and it certainly earns an “A” for effort, but after establishing a sturdy foundation, DeMonaco and his team (look for Michael Bay’s name among the producers) decide to fall back on a bunch of horror movie clichés that should never have stuck their nose in this project. It turns in to a Strangers-meets-Straw Dogs kind of bloodbath all while loosing it’s eerie “what if?” gimmick. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t a few moments that got the adrenaline pumping when the action kicks in, but these moments few and far between, certainly not enough to retain the film’s edge that it has early on.
The year is 2022, and the United States is ruled by the New Founding Fathers of America. This new party has instituted an annual twelve-hour period called “The Purge,” which legalizes all criminal activity. Many American citizens consider it their patriotic duty to take to the streets to murder and maim, their little contribution to keep the low crime and unemployment rates down, a result of “The Purge.” Among these supporters is James Sandin (played by Ethan Hawke), a wealthy home security salesman who has decided to spend the evening of “The Purge” in with his beautiful wife, Mary (played by Lena Headey), and his two teenage children, Zoey (played by Adelaide Kane) and Charlie (played by Max Burkholder). What begins as just a quiet evening in away from the violence spilling into the streets takes a turn when Charlie spots a bloodied stranger (played by Edwin Hodge) wandering through their neighborhood on their home surveillance cameras. Hearing the man’s cries for help, Charlie decides to unlock the Sandin home security system and give the man shelter. James and Mary are horrified by Charlie’s decision to give the man shelter, but things get even worse when a group of young, wealthy, and masked college students show up outside their door with an array of weapons and issuing an ultimatum through the security system: give them the stranger within the hour or suffer the consequences.
For the first half hour of The Purge, there are plenty of smart ideas thrown around that are built to spark debate. Characters and news media speak of “unleashing the beast,” encouraging each other to parade out into the night and beat, stab, shoot, or torture some innocent soul unable to protect themselves. It is basically class warfare, with the upper class absolutely leveling the less-fortunate competition. There is also plenty of talk about the bloodthirsty animal that resides in each and every one of us, a corked bottle of primal violence that is just waiting to be cracked open. The early sequences certainly do capture our America at this particular moment in time, when class warfare spills into the news and it appears that every other week, some psychotic gunman, the individual no one ever expected, is taking to the streets (or school, or movie theater, or mall) to unleash his-or-her inner beast. In this respect, The Purge works on a very alarming level, but when the film abandons these ideas in favor of a paint-by-numbers home invasion movie, it almost become a bit of a bore. Sure it is tense when the power in the Sandin home is cut and there is a chill to be felt when the masked psychos outside peak into the security cameras and windows, but by this point is has fully embraced the cliché. It’s just jump scares while a character mutters a line of dialogue meant to send a shock wave of thought through the viewer.
When it comes to the characters, DeMonaco works very hard to let us get to know them inside and out, but some of the acting and the dialogue that he gives them to work with leaves quite a bit to be desired. Hawke is the only familiar face here and he does a great job playing a rich jerk that supports “The Purge” but doesn’t feel the need to participate in it. You’ll certainly get the impression that he realizes some of the performances are lacking, so he is trying even harder to pick up the slack around him. The lesser-known Headey, who appeared in 300 and Dredd, is another stand out. Near the end of the film, she takes the wheel in a firm way, and you won’t be able to deny her evolution from sobbing and trembling to strong and no-nonsense. As far as the Sandin kids are concerned, Kane is cringe worthy as the lovesick teen Zoey, who is dating a guy a few years older than her, and Burkholder is a bit puzzling as the oddball Charlie, who seems to be flirting with a gothic side and bats an eye at the whole idea of “The Purge.” As far as the supporting cast goes, Hodge is passable as the bloodied stranger but he doesn’t really have much to do. Tony Oller shows up as Zoey’s older boyfriend, Henry, who has a surprise of his own in store for the Sandin family. I honestly couldn’t decide who I thought was a worse, Oller or Kane. Rhys Wakefield turns in an amazing villainous role as the leader of the psychos prowling around the house. Just wait until you get a look at his smile. It will freeze your blood.
As if The Purge’s reluctance to follow through with its ideas, the abundance of clichés, and the lifeless performances weren’t enough to keep the film down, the script itself is loaded with one perplexing moment after another. What exactly is the deal with Charlie? At times he seemed to disapprove of “The Purge” and then there are moments when he seemed fascinated by it. And why weren’t James and Mary a bit more concerned about their daughter’s safety when she ran off after Charlie let the stranger in? Am I the only one who got the impression that they weren’t too worried about finding her? And how about that twist ending that you can see coming a mile away if you just pay attention to that peculiar moment during the opening moments of the film? To me, this was all very distracting and poorly thought out on DeMonaco’s part. Overall, you have to commend the filmmakers desire to attempt something fresh and say something about this moment in America, but when the psychos start trying to break in, the film plays out like every other—and better—home invasion movie we’ve seen before. It borrows heavily from The Strangers and the remake of Straw Dogs and it embraces an avalanche of wearisome horror movie clichés that should have been purged from the genre years ago. Hmmm maybe that is why it is called The Purge. Maybe DeMonaco is purging horror of all these frustrating clichés. Yeah, that is pretty unlikely.