The film's ironic tone makes sanctioned crime more palatable
San Francisco Chronicle
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jun 07, 2013
LAST UPDATED: 01:50 a.m. HST, Jun 07, 2013
"The Purge" begins with the most stupid concept for a mainstream movie in recent memory. We will probably see a cereal commercial this summer that has a more thoughtful and realistic vision for the future.
But once you get past the ridiculous foundation — that the United States has eliminated crime and poverty by letting people hack at each other with machetes for 12 hours every year — it's impressive how intelligently the thriller is handled. Much closer to Hitchcock than "Hostel," this is what can happen when a pile of trash falls in the hands of a talented and resourceful artist.
"The Purge" was written and directed by James DeMonaco, with a lean budget but no shortage of audacity. It begins in the year 2022, where the vaguely explained "new founding fathers" have decided to give a mulligan for any crime committed between 7 p.m. on June 21 and 7 a.m. June 22. (Too bad if your birthday falls on either one of those dates.)
James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) has become rich installing walled-off security systems like the one in his well-appointed home, but his family is mired in dysfunction. Sandin's teen son lets a wounded homeless man inside during The Purge, and a creepy masked cult comes calling. You can imagine the pitch to the studio: "It's ‘Panic Room' meets ‘Assault on Precinct 13'!"
DeMonaco outlines the rules quickly, in a few lines of text crawl that explains The Purge, and then wisely sets a tongue-in-cheek tone. A talk-radio caller gleefully announces plans to kill his boss. Sandin comes home and waves to his neighbor, who is sharpening an enormous knife in his manicured yard.
The blunt instrument plot allows for a few sneaky moments of satire and social commentary lite. There's an unnerving blending of church and state that permeates the dialogue. The chief antagonist has a menacing/charming James Spader vibe — exactly the kind of kid you'd want knocking on the door to take out your daughter … on any night except the one where murder and rape are legal.
It's also clever how "The Purge" promotes sympathy with the self-preservation decisions of the 1 percent before turning the tables on the Sandins and the audience.
"The Purge" does binge on telegraphed plot turns. The action is merely satisfactory, and the second act is too contrived. A family member making poor choices is a necessary evil in horror movies and thrillers — but there's a point where three clueless Sandins make horrible decisions in different parts of the house at the same time.
The film never approaches realism, but it's rarely boring. Once the rules are set, DeMonaco does a good job of asking and answering Purge-related questions. My favorite: When you've been trying to kill someone all night, what happens to that relationship when the clock strikes 7 a.m.?
Hawke gets special credit for making an honest acting effort in a movie that must have seemed ridiculous on paper, and makes him look like kind of a jerk. In less than 25 years, he's gone from playing the "Dead Poets Society" sensitive kid to the "Dead Poets Society" jerkhead dad. Carpe diem. Seize the role.