Film Review: The Purge

A Walpurgisnacht in a high-tech world is the premise, and partly filled promise, of 'The Purge.' With a little 'The Strangers,' some 'Clockwork Orange,' and a lot of 'Straw Dogs,' James DeMonaco’s thriller does get you thinking.

The most arresting images in The Purge, starring Ethan Hawke, are of surveillance footage of crime sprees across the country, set to music by Debussy. It’s a chilling and unexpected beginning, and you’re ready for more.

But only a couple of scenes in writer-director James DeMonaco’s film truly startle: You may jump a bit as you wonder which corner hides an attacker; to reveal two major plot points would spoil things. Tension builds mainly from the score from Nathan Whitehead; as for the violence, stabbings and shootings, you know you’ll get those sooner as well as later.

The Purge does a little shoplifting of its own, from Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs and the intruders in masks in Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers, but it does have one unique if nutso concept. In a setting nine years hence, the government (probably standing in for the Tea Party), supported by televised “interviews” with experts and psychologists, approves the idea of a catharsis of violence once a year, for 12 hours. Any crime is permissible, and will never be punished. Medical and police help are not available. This sanctioned spree is a patriotic duty—to “release the beast” to keep the peace the rest of the year. Better yet, Purge Night seems to have resulted in a flourishing economy and nearly non-existent crime rate. Explaining all this, and the need to lock down against marauders, the Sandin parents tell their children that “you don’t know what it was like before.”

Of course, James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) has a vested interest: As a security entrepreneur, he has profitably provided his affluent neighborhood with technological safeguards, and is most happy to be living the good life. As he tells his wife Mary (Lena Headey of HBO’s “Game of Thrones”), ten years ago they could barely make the rent, but now they are contemplating buying a boat so big it even has a garage. Hawkes is convincing as a gung-ho purge defender and effective strong-armer, selling his family on the national plan and his part in it, as they hunker down in their protected home for the annual rite.

The problem is the kids. They’ve never really gotten used to the idea of “Purge Night”—a Mephistophelean fete. (Warning bells clang at a neighbor bearing celebratory cookies.) High-schooler Zoey (Adelaide Kane), despite her porno-preppy short plaid skirt, spends a lot of time in tears, and utters the movie’s game-and-behavior changing proclamation to her father. After watching him conducting a little proactive violence, she tells him things will never be the same again, and it gives him pause. Nor has 12-year-old Charlie’s (Max Burkholder) milk of human kindness soured. By letting a hunted street person, who is about to get murdered by some aristocratic thugs, come into the Sandin home, Charlie provides a moral compass for the movie, and jumpstarts the action.

A coolly snooty and snotty Rhys Wakefield plays the head of a gang of one-percenters pursuing this prey—scum in their eyes—while they threaten the Sandin manse. Politely, for a while, they demand his release, and ultimately pose the question, “Is his life worth that of your children?” Or as Dad James puts it more inelegantly “It’s him or us, Charlie.” The homeless African-American man (Edwin Hodge) kicks back, but also gets wedged into the retrograde Hollywood staple of the sacrificial black: He even volunteers to give himself up to the threatening gang in order to save the kids.

Techies may be intrigued by the security devices, especially Charlie’s robot toy which scours the house. But the moral dilemmas, even the class struggle, seemed to wash over the preview-screening crowd I saw the film with. The only spontaneous gleeful applause came when intruders, whoever they may be, were wiped out. The right to protect your home turf was the only thing that got this audience churned up.