Home Alone crosses paths with The Strangers and, of all things, Gareth Evans’ The Raid in writer-director James DeMonaco’s The Purge, a despicable, ugly and valueless exercise in hate, that purges all potential out of its interesting, original concept.
DeMonaco sets his actions in the year 2022, a time when American citizens recognize an evening of lawlessness every year known nationally as Purge Night. In an effort to vent our inherent homicidal rages, a political body known as the New Founding Fathers declare all crime – including murder – legal for 12 hours. Those who have no need to purge hide behind expensive security systems peddled by James Sandin (Ethan Hawke). But on this particular Purge Night, as series of incidents and accidents so absurd are going to cause headaches for the unsuspecting Sandin clan … and create a putrid movie-going experience for anyone foolish enough to give The Purge a try.
The absurd ethnic-cleansing rationales behind The Purge sound revolutionary enough that I found myself considering how successful they could be even as DeMonaco opens his film with a disturbing marriage of sound and imagery. He plays soothing symphonic melodies over video-camera footage – official Purge feeds – of some truly horrifically violent criminal acts, from public beatings with sticks and baseball bats to rudimentary gun play by unruly mobs.
The brazen confidence of that disturbing juxtaposition bleeds out, however, once DeMonaco transitions The Purge into its second act. Having established a skin-crawling sense of dread, the film tries to up the ante but spins clumsily into textbook horror-movie idiocy and lazy slasher-genre jumps in the dark.
Sandin’s son Charlie (Max Burkholder) – unquestionably the dumbest character I’ve seen on screen in years – spies a helpless black man wandering down the family’s suburban street after lockdown on Purge Night. Despite the fact that this has been determined as the most lethal evening on our nation’s calendar, Charlie disarms his family’s high-tech security code and lets the stranger in. Lunacy. Then, in a scrum, the Sandins lose this homeless man in their massive abode. Of course. And finally, a masked crew of murderous maniacs begin banging on the Sandin’s front door, proclaiming their right to purge their anger on this “lowly” human and threaten to come in if the Sandin family doesn’t force the innocent man out.
Why oh why couldn’t DeMonaco have purged some of the irrational and illogical plot turns that decimate his promising screenplay? The set up is inspired, laying out an examination of Deadly Sins that continue to haunt this seemingly “healed” society. Look for obvious sequences establishing the lust in Sandin’s daughter’s heart, the greed that possesses Hawke’s wealthy salesman, and the envy felt by his neighbors … all clients who resent the fortune he has built on their fear.
All of that is flushed away, sadly, in favor of generic horror tropes. Characters behave idiotically, with Charlie making numerous hair-brained decisions that put his family in danger. Intelligent analysis of the repercussions of this unique society is shuttled for grisly abuses that are rote and ineffective. Rhys Wakefield almost single-handedly salvages The Purge, and if you see it, he’ll turn your head. His wild-card approach to the character credited as “Polite Stranger” boasts Christopher Walken’s vocal cadence, Sam Rockwell’s sinister overconfidence, and the unpredictability of Heath Ledger’s Joker. If The Purge spawns sequels, as cheaply-produced horror movies often do, producers would be wise to figure out how to make him the star the next time around.