By Laurie Coker
Since I have grown to dislike the typical verbal diarrhea of Vince Vaughn, when given a choice, I opted to see Ethan Hawke in the violent thriller The Purge instead, a genre that I usually pass off to a different critic. Director James DeMonaco offers plenty of thrills, suspense and brutality, but fails to flesh out his purpose and substantially end his film with a satisfying wallop. With a few nail-biting and intense moments, The Purge keeps the audience engaged, but this satire about haves versus have nots and the state of crime and violence in this country fails to provoke much thought or connection.
Hawke plays family man and home security salesman (of the year), James Sandin, who along with his beautiful wife, Mary (Lena Heady), rebellious teen daughter, Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and quirky teen son, Charlie (Max Burkholder), is set to lock down his home for the annual purge. In 2022, the new American leadership denote a single day of unrepentant crime, as a means to curtail violence and legal transgressions (even murder), in which they allow citizens to “purge” their anger and hatred with no ramification. Since crime and murder are at an all time low, the Purge seems to work. However, things go terribly wrong for the Sandin’s when Charlie, a boy with a conscious, allows one would be victim (Edwin Hodge) into the home, bringing about the wrath of a purge-hungry mob. Lead by one sick, privileged man (Ryes Wakeman), the blood-thirsty gang turns their anger on the Sandin’s, threatening to kill them all if they don’t turn over the man they refer to as “homeless swine,” so they can kill him.
DeMonaco evidently wants us to see his thriller as a commentary on obvious and wide-ranged class divisions in America, offering us a world where the rich have secure, reinforced homes while the poor are helpless to defend themselves, so during the Purge, they are most often the victims of the pent up wrath of the nauseatingly rich. While his implication is clear, his delivery falls short, lost in the turmoil inside the Sandin’s fortress-like house. Even in this – affluent versus impoverished – Demonaco tosses in a twist.
It is in the chaos of the Purge that DeMonaco finds his rhythm in suspense and violence, even if the underlying premise is lost. And to be fair, DeMonaco’s film does paint a pretty disturbing picture of what would happen if humanity was granted permission to kill with no threat of prosecution, releasing society’s most horrific and basest inclinations. For the audience, this realization adds to the foreboding of the events that unfold. One would hope, however, that future rulers would find more credence in creating more jobs and better services and fostering closer community relations rather than allowing for rampant crime, even for just one day.
What if these actions could not be confined to one night? It’s all pretty silly, if thought about too long. I chose instead to focus on the fact that DeMonaco had me flinching and cringing with his suspense and intense moments of violence. Still, even in films like The Purge, one really hopes for a stronger story, one that evokes thought and encourages conversation, but then again, maybe he wasn’t sure himself.
Hawke leads a well-chosen cast of mainly Australian and British actors, and they play hard and well together, even if DeMonaco’s film is at times utterly predictable and riddled with implausibilities and continuity issues. Wakefield’s “polite stranger” is a bit over the top, as he sneers into security cameras, looking more like a demented clown than a uniformed prep-schooler. Those playing the Sandin family are substantially wrought with terror, anger, and bouts of conscience. Others in the cast, including Hodge have little to say, literally.
The Purge earns its R-rating deservedly, and from me it earns a C. I have seen far worse in the genre and it did captivate me with its cringe-worthiness. In retrospect, even if he manages to create tension, DeMonaco truly fails to deliver on the promise of a satirical view of class divisions and what is good in the movie, is not at all fresh.