As I was leaving the promo screening for Universal Pictures' new thriller The Purge, I found myself pleasantly surprised that what I'd expected to be dreadful was, in fact, a solid mid-range thriller with some really intriguing ideas that are never completely fleshed out.
Then, as I was driving home I found myself just a wee bit unsettled as I contemplated that I was returning home to working middle-class neighborhood where my home had been broken into twice. I suddenly noticed that I was feeling just a twinge of anxiety as I drove up my driveway and looked around just a little more closely before entering my home.
"Hm," I said to myself, "I guess the film was more effective than I was giving it credit."
Now, here it is a full day since my having seen The Purge and writer/director James DeMonaco's words and images are still darting around my brain as I process everything that unfolded and why it unfolded and how it unfolded. Mostly, I'm contemplating the "what ifs" of the scenario, but here it is 24 hours after watching the film and I simply can't let go.
In fact, I want to see it again.
This doesn't mean that I've suddenly changed course and consider The Purge a brilliant film or a product of brilliant filmmaking. It's not. It is, however, a thought-provoking and suspenseful thriller that makes you contemplate its ideas even if DeMonaco himself didn't exactly present them with the intensity and complexity that the entire set-up deserved.
The story is relatively simple. The Purge takes place in an America only a few years in the future. Yet, it becomes quickly evident that there has been a huge shift in the American social structure and social norms as unemployment is down to 1% and crime is at an all-time low. Most of the credit for the massive drop in crime is given to a government-sanctioned 12-hour period when all criminal activity becomes legal.
Police won't respond.
Hospitals won't help.
Anything goes. ANYTHING.
It's a 12-hour period when the "haves" are, for the most part, able to protect themselves in their gated communities and significantly enhanced security systems that pretty much lock them away until the 12 hours is up and the nation returns to the sort of Stepford nation it has become. However, during that 12 hours a sort of "purging" takes place that, as theorists would explain it, largely eliminates the weak and the drains on society. While this entire set-up has tremendous potential and the lack of addressing this potential is one of the film's major flaws, DeMonaco has chosen to go a more intimate route by making the film about a family of "haves," the Sandlins. James Sandlin (Ethan Hawke) is a "have" even among the "haves" and it doesn't take too awful long to figure out there's more than a little tension in the neighborhood because of it. James is a top seller of security systems in the community and, more specifically, has secured a good number of the homes in his own gated community. So, while others have had their struggles the Sandlin family is doing just fine. As the film kicks off, James is heading home to join wife Mary (Lena Headey), teenage daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and younger son Charlie (Max Burkholder) in their home turned fortress for the night.
Of course, while the Sandlins are one of the "haves" they are not without heart and when Charlie spies a stranger (Edwin Hodge) frantically seeking assistance he momentarily disarms the entire system and lets him in. This triggers for the entire family the wrath of those seeking this mysterious stranger, a group led by an unnamed young man known only in the credits as "Polite Stranger" (Rhys Wakefield) and a group of his attractive, well educated and wealthy peers who want nothing more than to purge their community of this filth.
The Sandlins must now figure out a way to survive the night without becoming the monsters they were trying so desperately to protect themselves from when the night began.
We live in a world where the homeless are, perhaps not frequently but certainly regularly, murdered on the streets for not much more than the sport of it all.
We live in a world where nation after nation has experienced genocides that have annihilated those who were a different race or religion or political party.
We live in a world where the idea of "natural selection" doesn't always feel that wrong. The strongest survive while the weakest fade away.
We live in a world where "the purge" feels close enough to realistic to make it all seem unsettling even if how it unfolds here is simultaneously ludicrous and brilliant. It's not very often that I find myself thinking about Hunger Games, Assault on Precinct 13, Ayn Rand and the Nazi holocaust but it happens here. It happens here, though, mainly because the idea behind the film itself is so strong and not necessarily because DeMonaco brings it to life so vividly. While I do give DeMonaco credit for not overly exploiting the concept, the film actually feels a bit narrow given the rather stunning potential of this set up. For example, while "all criminal activity" is legal the film itself only seems to focus on murder.
I kept thinking to myself that rapes would skyrocket, embezzlement would occur, looting would occur and other hideous crimes would unquestionably happen because "all criminal activity is legal." While I certainly get that the story is focused on "purging," it seems perhaps either a narrowing of the potential or further plot exposition addressing the complete lack of other criminal activity in the film.
Of course, it should be noted that a suspension of belief is really required for complete surrendering. After all, clearly one homeless man and a gang of thugs have all managed to infiltrate this gated community and there's actually only one home being bothered?
Okay, I'll stop.
Because, when it comes down to it I did actually really enjoy The Purge a lot more than expected. While there's an argument that additional character development would have really aided surrendering to the story, there's something even more unsettling about DeMonaco's choice to essentially put all of these "equals" into the scenario when we know from the basic set-up of the film that they are not actually considered equals. Most of the leading players actually manage to create compelling characters despite not having compelling characters drawn for them. They're led by Ethan Hawke, who is starting to make quite the name for himself in these types of films and justifiably so. Hawke is an actor who has the ability to sell being a "jerk" and being a "nice guy" within the same character, and he certainly does so here. While he's never made out to be one of the beastly "haves," it is clear from early on in the film that he's positioned himself a notch above the others and that sense of elitism really is at the heart of the film and, I believe, at the heart of what DeMonaco's saying about the prevalence of violence in society.
For my money, the strongest performance in the film actually goes to Lena Headey with young Max Burkholder coming in a close second. Both really serve as the film's conscience, though they are both called to behave in ways that clearly violate their own value systems. While most these days are probably more familiar with Headey from her role in Game of Thrones, this may very well change that for the actress as she has the perfect opportunity to be vulnerable, strong, vengeful, protective and much more here. It seems at times like she was handed a one-note role, but Headey makes the most of it.
As the young son, Burkholder is a curious, reclusive nerd who seems to be the only one who truly gets how stupid "the purge" really is and the wrongness of these actions. He creates one of the film's best devices because of how it's used, a Roomba spy-cam of sorts, and his actions pretty consistently make him one of the most believable and compelling characters.
On the flip side, Adelaide Kane mostly disappoints despite the seductiveness of her schoolgirl outfit. Kane is a bit too shrieky in key early scenes, while her oddball decisions make no sense and Kane can't seem to make sense of them. While she's not weak enough here to tank the film, she's the only one who really plays a false note in a film that feels surprisingly authentic amongst a sea of lunacy.
As the "polite stranger," Rhys Wakefield may very well bring to mind Funny Games or perhaps Straw Dogs. DeMonaco deserves credit for painting scenes that make Wakefield's actions believable if not exactly logical. Wakefield is eerie and disturbing and pretty much unforgettable here though, once again, his character isn't really given the development needed for a full-on surrender.
Nathan Whitehead's original music enhances the suspense without forcing it, while D.P. Jacques Jouffret does a good job of maintaining the suspense even though a good majority of the action never leaves the Sandlin home.
Not everyone is going to appreciate The Purge. While it has some strong action sequences, there's really only one truly "gross" scene and even it's not truly disturbing. While I've heard some refer to the film as "horror," it's more appropriately described as a suspense/thriller with some particularly intriguing political and religious threads running through it that are present but not really explored. There are some twists along the way, most somewhat predictable yet still satisfying in how they're presented.
Just like I felt in the hours after leaving the promo screening, I'm sitting here thinking about all these things I'd love to tell you or talk to you about. Just go find out yourself. While you may not be blown away by the film, you will most likely be pleasantly surprised.
Then, we can talk about it because, man, I still really need to process this film.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic