“THE PURGE” (Movie Review)
In the world of THE PURGE, the annual act is sold as both catharsis and entertainment (as a live Purge feed reveals during a stark opening credits). What’s troubling in this vision of American future and attempt at parallel of America current —aside from the fact that murder is wrong — is the question of this catharsis and just what and who it’s for?
The Purge, itself is a 12-hour window where crime (mostly violent) becomes legal. Of course, the government has imposed certain regulations regarding weapons and who can and can’t be targeted, eventually creating a class system based not just on status and wealth, but whether your life is worth preserving. Unable to afford much in the way of security, the poverty-stricken become targets, while the upper echelon act on their prejudices and disdain for those with what they deem little to offer. It’s in the middle of this that Ethan Hawke’s James Sandin finds himself. As he and his family hunker down for a safe evening, his son lets a hunted man inside. The pack of peppy, preppy young money after him come calling, doling out ultimatums and polite threats.
The leader of such, known as Polite Stranger, is played by Rhys Wakefield who manages to steal THE PURGE by basically just speaking directly into a security camera. His is a role that requires verbally spelling out the themes of the film, but Wakefield’s Stranger, essaying menacing and menacingly entitled, believes this is his god-given right. Polite Stranger’s entire crew of other strangers believes this, too. They feel no threat in The Purge, only free reign. Hence, their treatment of the evening is as a game, making death threats on tree swings, skipping, etc. They wear masks which so resemble their smiling faces that the veil is hardly necessary. Tonight, they don’t need to be subtle in their hatred.
Polite Stranger and his band make an interesting counter to Hawke’s businessman. Where Polite Stranger believes in The Purge philosophically, James won’t take part, but believes in it financially. He sells high end security systems to high end families, massively profiting not just off of the act, but the idea/threat of it. THE PURGE, as a movie, is not so successful at that.
THE PURGE is full of ideas and tension, and while both tend to pop at certain times, they mostly fizzle at others. Many reviews will undoubtedly cite the billiards/pool room scene (again, the violence is a game) as it is taut, visceral and properly crowd pleasing in its action, but other bits aren’t so stimulating. Similarly, Ethan Hawke’s character as morally questionable feels unexplored. Like another Blumhouse production, SINISTER, Hawke spends a good deal of time staring at a screen in THE PURGE. In one particularly shuddery moment of that film, a murder is viewed through the reflection of his character’s glasses as he views it. It felt as if it was asking to what degree we’re complicit in the type of dark entertainment we consume. Here Hawke’s character is certainly so, but that thread and others are abandoned in the name of brisk pace and climactic siege. Luckily, the final moments save some face (by smashing one into a glass table), going off on a neat tangent and finally giving Lena Headey a moment to shine.
But going back to catharsis, the word is often used in reference to horror as the genre allows both audience and artist to explore and confront our basest nature. That’s not exactly THE PURGE’s intent. We’re never meant to cheer on or give in to the idea of The Purge, and it seems writer/director James DeMonaco never would, either. It’s pure fantasy meant to satirize frustrating and expanding disparity. While that’s admirable in its aggression toward unjust entitlement and overt prejudice and also sometimes thrilling, THE PURGE is unfortunately never fully satisfying in either capacity.