‘The Purge’ Review
If you spend any time talking to an evolutionary psychologist, you may come away feeling depressed. We are beastly, horrible creatures whose brutal nature may still be a few steps behind our notions of morality. (One neuroscientist, Sam Harris, argues that we don't even possess free will – not because of any theological notions of predestination, but because we are not yet equipped to master the synaptic responses in our brain which build from environmental factors.) The “New Founding Fathers” in the sci-fi/horror/thriller/whatsit picture 'The Purge' seem to agree with all this, or at least use it as an excuse to implement their very unique (okay, far-fetched) plan to pacify the American public.
At the heart of 'The Purge' is a night in which all bets are off. Similar to “Red Hour” in the original series 'Star Trek' episode "The Return of the Archons," the citizens are permitted to go bananas in the streets and, so long as weapons above a certain grade aren't used and no government officials are touched, everyone is free to plunder, incinerate, rape and kill whatever they want with no repercussions.
Permitted isn't the right word. They are encouraged. America of the (not too distant) future has a nearly non-existent crime rate, and this annual letting off of savage steam is felt to be the cause.
Those who choose not to purge are welcome to, of course, and if you have enough dough you can buy a state of the art security system. That's where Ethan Hawke comes in. Head of a nouveau riche family with wife Lena Headey, older daughter (Adelaide Kane) and younger son (Max Burkholder), they will spend the night of the Purge in McMansion-style safety thanks to, ironically, dad being the top salesman of a high-end, computer-based, Purge-proofing system.
Problems come, however, when the daughter's “older” boyfriend hides out 'till after lockdown so he can “have a word” with Hawke, and the very emo son sees a desperate homeless man running through the neighborhood begging for sanctuary. When Burkholder lifts the steel barrier to the front door, he sets off a chain of events that will change the family forever.
The dude in the street is someone a bunch of rich, snotty, private school kids in cliché horror movie masks want to kill. And they demand to have their prey! 'The Purge' soon segues into a reasonable facsimile of 'Straw Dogs.' The jump scares are all predictable but some of the violence is gripping. I guess there's just something wonderful about seeing a man protecting his family.
Of course, before Hawke decides to turn badass, he has to choose whether or not to just sacrifice the homeless man. Truth of the matter is, if he could have, he would have. That's the nut of 'The Purge,' and the thing that elevates it a bit from a standard home invasion picture. Class iniquities are brought front and center. For the poor, who have no ability to protect themselves, they are merely playthings for people who want to get drunk on a night's brutality. Yes, some people go out and purge to settle vendettas – but most do it out of an acceptance of their dark, sadistic nature.
The film suggests, however, that humans wouldn't be bloodthirsty if they weren't conditioned to be so. So some of the Sam Harris-like theories I mention above are swirling around in this movie somewhere.
Unfortunately, there's also a lot of hiding and shouting and fighting scenes that are only a tad more that mediocre. Neither Hawke nore Headey do all that much that's interesting in this movie. The baddies are totally rote. Other than the opening credits (a shocking display of violence set to Debussy's "Clair de Lune") there is very little artistry in this film. Frankly, one has to wonder if this movie wasn't shoved into production as a 'Hunger Games' knockoff – another bizarre, government-sponsored display of circular killing.
Still, the movie's pulpish “Asimov's Science-Fiction”-like vibe is entertaining. And while some may want to pick the logic apart once the credits role, there's enough in the movie to make it mostly make sense. (It works about as well as Andrew Niccol's 'In Time,' another movie I liked more than most people.) To that end, snicker all you want at this dopey picture, but instead of being another pointless slasher, it at least makes an attempt at some interesting discourse.
'The Purge' opens in theaters on June 7.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.