Director: James DeMonaco (Staten Island)
Screenplay: James DeMonaco
Producers: Michael Bay, Jason Blum, Brad Fuller, Andrew Form, Sebastien Lemercier
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Rhys Wakefield, Max Burkholder, Adelaide Kane
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 85 min.
What would happen if, for 12 hours once a year, there were no laws and everyone was free to commit any crime they wanted without consequences, including murder?
That’s the general conceit at the centre of The Purge, a tense horror-thriller that sits somewhere between Panic Room and Battle Royale – Panic Royale, if you will – all the while attempting to say something about both the gun-legal society of the USA and the inherent propensity people have for being violent.
The plot focuses specifically on a well-off family who live in a big house paid for by the security systems the father (Ethan Hawke) sells that protect people who don’t want to take part in “The Annual Purge” from the people who do.
Just after settling in behind their seemingly impenetrable fortress of shutters and security cameras, the son of the family who is unsure of the whole process lets a homeless man in need of help into the house. The trouble is a gang of gung-ho Purge-enthusiasts is after the man and it then becomes a game of can the gang get in before society returns to normal the next morning?
The film has one of those light bulb above the head, “why hasn’t someone done this before?” concepts and it does a very good job of setting up the near-future world where the event – watched by millions of people via security footage from the comfort of their secure homes – has brought crime and poverty to an all-time low. The idea that people readily snatching the opportunity to blow off steam once a year can somehow curb a country’s societal problems is a big leap to take as a viewer but it’s a fascinating proposal nonetheless if you’re willing to buy into it.
A tense first 40 minutes captures an astutely menacing atmosphere, especially with the introduction of the main antagonist (played brilliantly by Rhys Wakefield) in the form of a creepily smiling leader of the weapon-wielding gang come to collect “the homeless swine.” Unfortunately this leads way to an inevitable conclusion to the “will they/won’t they get in?” plot and it then devolves into a series of samey struggle sequences involving lots of fumbling around the dark grasping for the gun on the floor and the like. The heavy-handed anti-right wing political commentary running throughout is infused and confused, and it sometimes purges logic in service of thrills.
The thrust of the plot focuses minutely on one family, putting you in their shoes in an attempt to make you think “what would I do?” but the concept actually makes you wish you could see the wider context of what’s going on in the streets beyond that of the idyllic suburbs. We do get to see some of that in the opening credits via CCTV footage but seeing more of it in action, perhaps by extending the runtime from the lean 85 minutes it sits at, might have helped make it something more substantial.
The Purge raises interesting questions – Would you kill if there were no repercussions? Are people just naturally violent? Is the solution to violence more violence? – in slick fashion but ultimately throws most of them away in favour of more familiar violent thriller scenarios. The threat to the family, who are likeable enough thanks to good performances particularly from Hawke and Lena Headey, are palpable and frightening even if the perpetrators are ripped-off from other similar fare, with their sinister smiling masks and dead-pan line delivery. While the set up is better than the overall execution, the film is at least aiming for something interesting – that premise is a real hook – and that’s more than can be said of a lot of Hollywood movies these days.
Click “play” to see the trailer:
This review was previously published at Thoughts On Film.