There’s something powerful in the way horror movies and thrillers are able to tap into the cultural fears of a given moment. Whether it’s the sexual politics of the 1980s slasher movie, or the torture porn explosion in the wake of the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, no other genre is so adept at saying, “Here’s what's on our minds right now, and it’s scaring the hell out of us.”
That’s the tradition writer-director James DeMonaco hopes to join with The Purge. A home invasion flick wrapped in Occupy-era themes and fears, it starts off strong but is ultimately neither scary nor smart enough to kick off the kind of thought-provoking conversations it so clearly wants to be part of.
The setup is certainly promising. The year is 2022. In response to a tremendous economic crisis, America has been reborn at the hands of the "New Founding Fathers" — a group of elected officials who initiated something called The Purge upon taking office. The problem with America, goes the rhetoric, is that its citizens are not able to keep their animalistic nature at bay. So once a year, all laws are suspended for 12 hours, during which citizens can rape, murder, and pillage to their heart’s content. And somehow this system has worked, quelling economic panic and returning America to prosperity.
That’s when we meet Ethan Hawke’s James Sandin (following up Daybreakers and Sinister, the actor has been tearing it up in genre films the last few years). James is at the upper end of the economic spectrum, living in a prestigious community and making his living selling security systems that turn homes into fortified castles to protect against The Purge. His wife Mary (Game of Thrones’ Lena Headey) runs the house and takes care of their children, who are beset by typical movie-children problems: teenaged daughter Zoey has an older boyfriend Dad doesn’t approve of, and son Charlie is a talented misfit who doesn’t quite know what to do with himself.
It’s the type of cinematic suburban tableau that’s just begging to be upended, and that’s what happens when Charlie disables the security system during the annual Purge to help a drifter (Edwin Hodge) begging for help in the street. Violence soon erupts, and the Sandins find themselves hounded by a group of masked killers chasing the drifter. Turn the man over, they say, or we’ll break into the house and kill everyone inside.
Once a year citizens can rape, pillage, and murder to their heart's content
DeMonaco comes out with his satirist’s guns blazing right from the start. There’s an undeniable Tea Party vibe in the rhetoric of this alternate future, and a series of news broadcasts reveal that some have a more somber take on the Purge: that it might be more about killing off the poor, elderly, and infirm — those least able to defend themselves — and decreasing the economic drag they have on society in the process.
It’s Ayn Rand with a shotgun, and while there’s certainly territory to be mined here DeMonaco fails to follow through after he sets up the pieces. He tries again with a few character turns given to the mysterious drifter — played by a black actor, because the film’s class warfare is subtle like that — but they’re clumsy and obvious, the kind of after-school special lessons you know are coming the minute the drifter is put at odds with the Sandins.
It's Ayn Rand with a shotgun
Of course, all of this could be forgiven if the movie was simply a rousing scarefest — but it fails there as well. It doesn’t help that the film appears to be lifting heavily from Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers. That 2008 film featured Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman as a couple under siege from… a group of masked killers. At times the masks in The Purge look so similar I started to wonder if the hunters had watched The Strangers to psyche themselves up before they went on their rampage. What The Purge doesn’t borrow is The Strangers’ measured pace and clever use of sound design and framing. If Bertino’s film was a sleek, John Carpenter-influenced game of hide and seek, The Purge is a blunt instrument, going for fake-out scares and easy tricks that never lead to much tension.
That said, Australian actor Rhys Wakefield does deliver an enormously entertaining performance as the hunters' ringleader. With his wide grin and vicious demeanor, he plays the role as a sort of prep-school Joker, at turns ridiculous, hilarious — and utterly at ease with violence.
It’s a case of unfulfilled promise, and I can’t help but wonder if there was a great socio-political satire that got lost somewhere along the way. The high-concept setup is so ridiculous — it reeks of the kind of over-the-top commentary we saw in the original RoboCop — that it’s a shame the film drags through its 85 minutes without paying it off. The Purge does have moments that shine — there’s a a great gag about the government regulating just which kinds of weapons can be used during the night of lawlessness, and Hodge does a lot with a thinly written role. The film even manages to squeeze in a surprise plot twist or two. But it’s a slog of a journey that ultimately leaves you wishing you could see the film The Purge wants to be instead of the film that it is.
The Purge is playing now in theaters. For further discussion about the film — spoilers and all — join our conversation in the forums!