Dir: James DeMonaco
The Purge starts with an interesting concept. It’s 2022, and the US is almost crime free, apparently thanks to a new law which, once a year, for twelve hours, makes all crime legal. Annually, Americans are able to dump all their pent up agression in one orgy of destruction. The rich are able to protect themselves behind security systems like those sold by James Sandin (Ethan Hawke). During the purge Sandin’s 12 year old son (Max Burkholder) lets a homeless man who is being pursued by a masked mob who want to kill him into their house. The mob threaten to break in, take the stranger and kill the Sandins for protecting him, unless they find and return the homeless man so he can be murdered.
So far, so promising. Also promising is the fact that the lead role is played by Ethan Hawke, who I consider one of the most underrated actors working right now, and who, last year, lifted the rather formulaic Sinister somewhat out of the ordinary. Unfortunately, The Purge never makes the most of either of these assets. The political elements are treated in a way that is, at best, rather prosaic, and really only serves, after a while, to provide a slightly different hook on which to hang a home invasion movie. Criminally, Hawke is wasted, and seems to know it, appearing bored in the expository scenes and never making a script that seems to have trouble deciding exactly who his character is feel all that convincing.
The first twenty minutes of James DeMonaco’s film do an acceptable (if repetitious) job of establishing what the purge is, and giving the night a foreboding atmosphere. What works less well is the telegraphed way that it establishes the strained dynamics of the Sandin family (completed by mother Mary, played by Lena Heady and 15 year old daughter Zoey, played by the very clearly 22 year old Adelaide Kane, an age discrepancy that renders Hawke’s annoyance at her boyfriend being 18 quite laughable). However, the biggest problem with the first act is one scene that completely spoils where the film is going to go, because unless it’s coming back during the third act its inclusion is utterly redundant. It’s clear that we’re supposed to see this as the big shocking payoff of the film when it does rear its head again, but it falls totally flat.
The rest of the film is a series of missed opportunities. Rather than play up the moral dilemma by making the Sandin family forge a connection with the homeless stranger (Edwin Hodge), who is never even given a name, the film keeps him very anonymous and personality free, perhaps so that it seems somewhat less awful when they have to decide to incapacitate him and hand him over to the people outside. There is another way to go here; make the stranger menacing and have the threat come from both within and without the home, again, this is something DeMonaco tries, but it never really leads anywhere, and the suspense scenes feel rote.
I’m not even entirely sure that anyone decided what kind of film The Purge should be. Is it a suspense thriller with political overtones? Is it a home invasion horror movie? Is it 90′s throwback yuppie horror? Is it the action inflected Straw Dogs it becomes in the third act? On that, how does James suddenly become so adept at fighting? Somebody really needed to make these decisions, because what they’ve ended up with here is an 85 minute mish mash of unfinished ideas that keep trying to go somewhere, but never really manage it.