In 2022 America, life is exceptional. Unemployment is down to 1%. Crime and poverty are virtually non-existent. In spite of all of that, every year there is a peculiar national holiday fueled purely by hatred. On March 22nd, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., citizens can commit as many felonies as they want. It’s called The Purge. The idea works like this: Everyone has dark thoughts, pent-up frustrations they can’t act out on 364 days of the year without being thrown in prison. Keeping these feelings locked within you is unhealthy, according to medical experts. So, once a year for 12 hours straight you can release all of them on innocent people without facing any consequences. (Law enforcement and emergency workers are off-duty during this time.) Once the second siren sounds, however, you must stop and revert back to your normal disposition as if nothing bad happened.
If this sounds like a pretty dumb idea to you, then you are a reasonable, decent human being, unlike most of the characters in this movie. Honestly, the idea of this happening in the real world, as horrifyingly violent and scary as it actually is, is a real stretch, even for increasingly authoritarian America. Where are the outraged protestors? The unvarnished criticism from political pundits? The angry liberal politicians pounding their desks in Congress? The condemnation from Amnesty International and the United Nations? For some odd reason, there is no real, meaningful opposition to this appalling half-day of reckoning.
Ethan Hawke plays a well-to-do married father of two who sells home security systems. As the annual Purge approaches, the indifferent businessman sells so many in his area he becomes the top salesman in his company. (Not everyone is in a violent mood on March 22, thankfully.) His family never participates in this heartless ritual so when the time comes, a button is pressed and these steel barriers come down over all their windows and doorways. Security monitors all over the property keep the family aware of what’s going on outside. Never mind the fact that someone could easily set fire to their mansion trapping them inside or smash the hell out of their home once they rip off the protective steel (which actually happens). In Hawke’s mind, as long as his system (which he eventually admits is useless in “worst-case scenarios”) is enacted, his stay-at-home wife (Lena Headey), his health-obsessed, scientific son (Max Burkholder), his teen daughter (Adelaide Kane) and himself are completely safe.
Little do they know, they’re not. His daughter’s 18-year-old boyfriend (Tony Oller), who Hawke does not approve of because she’s underage (even though the real-life Kane is in her early 20s), has somehow snuck in the house before the walls come down and it doesn’t take a genius to figure why he wants to have a word with Hawke. (The couple have to sneak around to spend time together although make-out sessions in her bedroom don’t seem terribly discreet.)
Meanwhile, his son (who looks uncannily like a young Nick Cave) spots a homeless man (Edwin Hodge) crying out for assistance in their street hoping to be spared from an angry mob. He’s already in dire straits. So, he lets him in. And the poor man promptly disappears within the vast corridors of the family mansion. The mob that was hoping to waste him comes calling. Their spokesman is played by Australian actor Rhys Wakefield who must’ve practiced his demented smile an awful lot before shooting his scenes. (I wonder if he ever auditioned for The Joker.) He’s the closest anyone in this movie comes to having something of an interesting personality, slight as it is. You genuinely dislike this preppy sadist even if he is a one-note villain. (His character name is Polite Stranger, if you can believe it.)
Now here’s something that doesn’t make sense. The angry mob has chosen this unfortunate homeless gentleman for execution. When he finds sanctuary in Hawke’s home, the mob demand he be released so they can finish him off. (Like many of the maniacs out for blood on this night, they have a bizarre loathing for anyone poor which, as I mentioned before, no one complains about.) Here’s a thought. Why don’t they just move on to someone else? Why waste all those precious hours not killing anybody? You’ve got 12 hours, guys. Go nuts on other people.
But apparently, Bloody Stranger (the homeless guy’s “name”), is who they really want to murder, which creates a dilemma for Hawke and his family. At some point they belatedly come to the realization that the man shouldn’t be fed to the oddly masked fiends patiently hanging outside their abode and that maybe they should finally join in The Purge themselves once they inevitably find a way in.
In much smarter hands, The Purge could’ve been something a lot more provocative and timely than a standard, futuristic, semi-apocalyptic action thriller, perhaps a scathingly dark satire on our continuing acceptance of violence against those we fear and mistrust. Maybe it would’ve worked better if the targets were law-abiding Muslims instead of the defenseless poor. But the movie is far too lazy to even give two of its supporting characters proper names, so asking for an original, well thought out theme here is pushing it. (Some will find it somewhat reminiscent of The Simpsons episode where snakes get whacked by the citizens of Springfield for a day.)
The movie only runs 85 minutes but it feels a lot longer. There are way too many scenes of Hawke and his wife splitting up to search in vain for the missing homeless guy in hallway after hallway after the mob cuts the power to their home. There are too many standard scares (like people jumping in the frame) that never chill you to the bone. And there really is no reason to care what happens to anybody since most of the characters aren’t all that interesting to begin with. Furthermore, most are born without hearts and brains.
In the end, we’re left with an empty-headed thriller that lacks conviction, scarily compelling ideas and a point. No wonder it was number one at the box office during its first weekend in release.
(Special thanks to Dave Scacchi.)
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, June 10, 2013