[UK 31st May, 2013]
[US/Canada 7th June, 2013]
Written and Directed by James DeMonaco
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Edwin Hodge, Rhys Wakefield, Max Burkholder, Adelaide Kane
When Quigs first called attention to The Purge, I was unimpressed with the trailer. I thought that it was another tired reworking of paranoia surrounding race, sexuality, and the future. These initial thoughts did not stop me from screening the film for myself in a hope that I would perhaps be incorrect, and I still cannot decide if I was. I was not expecting the movie to have such a sharp attention to class, and I was really not expecting how its exploration of the nuances of class identity through a dystopian America would stay with me for hours after leaving the theater.
There is no doubt that the film’s central premise, that the United States has been reborn through a yearly 12-hour period known solely as “The Purge,” where essentially all crime is legal and all emergency services are suspended, is interesting and appropriate for an audience who has struggled through a horrible economy, crime problem, and recent war. But, what makes the film captivating is the ethical implications of such a policy; in the film’s opening minutes we see the wealthy retreating to their massive homes complete with incredible security systems in preparation for another year’s Purge and learn that the practice has lowered unemployment and crime to virtually zero. Yet, the spectre of class is never far behind, in that we also learn that the primary victims of The Purge and its associated crimes are the poor and homeless who do not have the funds to protect themselves with a multi-thousand dollar security system or live in a gated community, thus creating a hierarchy of lives and their value to society. But, annoyingly, there is no outward mention of gender or race. Strike one.
Ethan Hawke leads the cast as James Sandin, an extremely wealthy security system salesman who is forced to confront The Purge directly when his neurotic and sensitive teenage son Charlie (an excellent Max Buckholder of tv’s Parenthood) lets a wounded African American victim of the event (a decent Edwin Hodge) into their locked-down home, setting off a series of ultra-violent and horrifying circumstances for the family. Lena Headey co stars as James’ exercise-obsessed and quietly miserable suburban wife Mary, and Adelaide Kane features as their overly sexualized and cranky teenage daughter Zoey.
Headey and Kane are largely forgettable, save some creepily flattering camera angles on Kane – especially in the film’s earlier moments, that capture her private school uniform skirt, tie, and knee socks rather well – and Headey’s proud mention that the family’s dinner does not contain a single carbohydrate. Hawke is his usual mediocre, never reaching Gattaca level intensity, but is believable as the class and money obsessed James (the family’s home is amazing and full of gadgets and markers of wealth).
The true scene-stealer is Rhys Wakefield as the “Polite Leader,” a young man who suddenly appears on the family’s doorstep when his group’s Purge target (the African American man let in by Charlie) has escaped and is thought to be taking asylum in the Sandin home. Wakefield’s character is a perfect personification of prep school privilege and entitlement, calmly asking the Sandins to release their reluctant house guest or else the group will have to go after “their own” (aka the super elite and rich), which they do not want to do. Wakefield plays his character with a haunting calmness that calls to mind Bale’s Patrick Bateman or Hopkins’ Dr. Hannibal Lecter. The scenes marked with his presence are truly psychologically scary because they expose the affect of what the American 1% could become psychically capable of given the proper permissions and methodology.
Thus, the family is left with an ethical dilemma: release the African American man to the group or risk their own lives by keeping him in the house. This is the knot that gets the film truly moving and is further complicated by the fact the man has hidden himself in the huge house, leaving the family scrambling to find him. While this creates lots of interesting ethical implications for all of the characters present within the film, DeMonaco’s writing is full of so many holes that the viewer spends most of his or her time trying to piece together what The Purge actually is, how “the New Founding Fathers” took over the country, and why if the film is set in 2022, things still remain largely 2013. Strike two.
The movie is also incredibly violent and loud, two things that do not usually bother me, but this time did. As I walked out of the theatre, I commented that I needed a cocktail to calm down after so much insanity on the screen. I’m someone who can sit through Hostel, American History X, and Martyrs and not flinch, yet The Purge upset me, which I consider to be the sole victory of the film. It’s not that the movie is bad – its definitely not basic or horrible – it’s just one of those horror films that you are constantly wanting more from. I would have loved more exploration into race (it’s no coincidence that these rich white kids have targeted a black man for their killing) and sex (a couple of the group makes out on the Sandin’s doorstep at the thought of receiving their victim back, not to mention the clear iciness between James and Mary). The Purge definitely is a sombre expose into the dangers of class and privilege, but it’s all so buried that DeMonaco loses most of his social commentary punch; something that directors like Romano, Roth, Craven, and Argento have mastered so well. To be fair, DeMonaco is only a second time director, but then again Last House on the Left was Wes Craven’s first film, and that movie bleeds so many politics that it is still being written about by academics with respect to its depictions of rape, violence, and the family. Hmmm. Could that be a strike three?
Anyway, bottom line: if you are sans air conditioning this summer and want to see something other than the latest comic book movie, Pixar film full of screaming kids, or Judd Apatow mess, check out The Purge. It will give you lots to think about. It’s not tight, clear, or by any means revolutionary, but it’s interesting and that’s at least worth something these days.