THE PURGE is a tense thriller with a novel if incredible premise that combines bits of THE STRANGERS, PANIC ROOM, STRAW DOGS, the STAR TREK episode “Return of the Archons,” and Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (or at least an echo of the short story’s underlying concept, as inspired by the William James essay “The Moral Philospher and the Moral Life”). By reconfiguring its old formula – eliminating some elements, adding others – Blumhouse Productions (working in conjunction with Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes) has crafted its best film in years, erasing memories of the terminally declining PARANORMAL ACTIVITY sequels and spin-offs. The result may not be perfectly satisfying, but the film earns the overused praise, “thought provoking.”
The usual Blumhouse spooks are gone, but the company’s traditional running time (under 90 minutes) and low-budget setting remains the same: the majority of the action plays out inside a single-family dwelling, a homestead under attack, the family within buffeted by brutal forces that cannot be kept at bay by locked doors. The premise this time is that, nine years from now, the United States is enjoying an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity, thanks to the annual “Purge,” a twelve-hour period in which crime, even murder, is legalized, allowing the populace to release its simmering tension and hatred before returning to blissful normality for the rest of the year.
James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) is a prime beneficiary of this status quo: he sells security systems to rich clients, who want to avoid being caught up in the Purge’s violence. Business is so good that he and his wife, Mary (Lena Headey) have added an extension to their mansion, incurring the envy of their neighbors. All is not well, however: son Charlie (Max Burkholder) is too young to understand the “necessity” of the Purge, and daughter Zoe (Adelaide Kane) is moody because her father disapproves of her older boyfriend, Henry (Tony Oller). Shortly after James puts the house on lockdown, Charlie raises the defenses to allow entrance by a frightened “Bloody Stranger” (as the character played by Edwin Hodge is referenced in the credits). This draws the attention of a gang led by the Polite Stranger (Rhys Wakefield), whose preturnatural poise masks a murderous desire to Purge his soul by killing the man who has taken refuge inside the Sandin’s home. He offers James a terrible choice: either turn over the Bloody Stranger , or the Polite Stranger and his friends will find a way inside and kill not only their intended victim but the Sandin family as well.
THE PURGE promises a chaotic free-for-all of citywide wilding; what it actually delivers is smaller in scope but bigger in concept: social satire that is sharper, and laced with far more conviction, than THE HUNGER GAMES. The film presents a clearly immoral situation that has been normalized and accepted, thanks to jingoistic patriotism, mixed with a touch of religious fervor. Those who benefit rationalize the Purge’s existence because of its benefits to society – by which, they mean benefits to themselves; those who stay safely locked inside, avoiding the ill-effects of the Purge, show their “support” by placing symbolic flowers outside their houses, as if that somehow forms a bond of solidarity with the less fortunate, who cannot protect themselves.
As drama, THE PURGE is built on an unbelievable premise: do we really accept that the population would let bygones be bygones after seeing loved ones brutally murdered by strangers and even acquaintances who were allowed to go free? Fortunately, credibility is not a problem, because the film works on the level of a parable, a variation on James’ theme that a blissful utopia where millions were happy at the expense of the suffering and torture of some far-off soul would be a “hideous thing.”
In the film, this suffering is inflicted on far more than a single soul, but it is embodied in the form of the Bloodied Stranger, a homeless black man (whose briefly glimpsed dog tags suggest a war veteran) whose plight moves Charlie to a human act of pity, with devastating consequences. For once, James Sandin is confronted with the reality that he has kept at bay, compartmentalized in his mind. At first, he is more than willing to sacrifice this lamb to the gang lurking outside like the zombies in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but his children are unwilling to accept the sacrifice their father is willing to make on their behalf, thus forcing James to rethink his assumptions.
The way this plays out is not always as clear and sharp as it should be. The geography of the Sandin house is never clearly established, which makes the action unclear (things in different rooms seems to be happening at the same time, but no one ever notices tell-tale voices or – more obviously – gunshots). Zoey’s moping catatonia is hardly endearing, and her schoolgirl outfit (skirt, white blouse, and tie) look less like a real uniform than a sexy schoolgirl costume. Last-minute reshooting may have left a few seams showing, with characters disappearing for extended periods: the Bloody Stranger (who clearly will have to have a large role in the film’s resolution) is sidelined far too long, even after James has relented his initial decision to toss him outside; meanwhile, James is given more STRAW DOGS-type action as he defends his home against the invaders. And writer-director james DeMonaco serves up approximately half a dozen variations on a scene that should never appear more than once in any film: a helpless, unarmed audience identification figure, about to be killed, is saved by a gunshot from an off-screen figure.
To its credit, THE PURGE does not lay out a moral to the story in a schematic way, leaving some room for interpretation. Although some characters are clearly bad, our “good guys” are no saints. James and Mary may not participate in the Purge, but they live with it happily – at arm’s length -and make a pretty penny off of it, even if they do not truly deserve their wealth. (One of the film’s sly jokes is that James is a bit of a con-man; his security systems are far from fool-proof, leaving even his own family at risk.) Despite the even-handedness, one suspects that the film is at least partially a jab at the concept of a religious right-wing political ascendancy. Rhys Wakefield’s artificially strained smile of politeness recalls Mitt Romney’s nickname “The Smiler,” and one briefly overheard news commentator suggests that the real purpose of the Purge is to thin society’s ranks of the poor and the unemployed – i.e., the “Takers” so reviled by the Right.
In the end, the good, upstanding folk of the restricted neighborhoods turn out to be at least as blood-thirsty as the supposed criminal underclass; they pretend that their temporarily de-criminalized behavior is a cleansing spiritual act. Clearly, class and racial lines are being crossed in a way that breaks down the “us versus them” mentality behind the Purge. Those who survive are willing to reconsider the system, or at least refuse to abide by its immoral strictures, while the embodiment of that system must finally pay the piper. It’s not a bad moral at all, and it vastly improves on the usual Blumhouse “twist,” in which everybody dies because it’s “unexpected” – regardless of whether that ends the story satisfactorily.
Teenagers expecting to vicariously enjoy a feature length riot in the streets may be disappointed by THE PURGE, but the film does what good speculative fiction should do: it asks, “What if?” THE PURGE may not be absolutely brilliant, but DeMonaco is clever enough to let his intriguing question speak for itself, provoking us to consider our own answers.
THE PURGE (Universal Pictures: June 7, 2013). A Blumhouse and Platinum Dune Production. Produced by Jason Blum and Michael Bay. Written and directed by James DeMonaco. Rated R. 85 minutes. Cast: Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Max Burkholder, Adelaide Kane, Edwin Hodge, Rhys Wakefield, Tony Oller, Arija Bareikis, Tom Yi, Chris Mulkey, Tisha French.