SUSPENSE FLICK WON’T BREAK ANY BOX OFFICE RECORDS, BUT IT DOES OFFER A TROUBLING LOOK IN THE MIRROR
Director: James DeMonaco
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Lena Heady
Studio: Universal Pictures
Length: 85 minutes
A little less than a decade from now, the United Sates rests on the brink of Utopia. Almost everyone has a job, poverty’s virtually non-existent and crime rates are at historic lows. And America owes it all to the Purge, an annal ritual where murder, rape, rioting and any other form of human violation and atrocity is legalized for one night, allowing people to unleash the violence and hatred they’ve contained for an entire year on their fellow citizens with no fear of consequence or retribution. Emergency services are suspended for twelve hours with police, firefighters, paramedics and other first responders hunkering down for the night, waiting for the sun to rise and preparing to deal with the bloody fallout. Emergency rooms close up shop, turning the wounded and dying away until the Purge has ended. High ranking politicians are immune to the Purge and the government puts some minimal restrictions on the severity of weapons revellers can use but everything (and everyone) else is fair game. The rich hide behind security systems and curtains of steel that turn their homes into vaults, while the poor and the not so rich hunker down and pray.
And thus is the story behind James DeMonaco’s The Purge, telling the tale of the Sandin family on Purge night. The Sandins are doing quite well thank you very much, they are one of the “haves,” as an enthusiastic Purge participant would later phrase it. James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) is his company’s most successful salesman of security systems, and he’s turned many of his neighbours into satisfied, safe customers. Outside of their affluence, the Sandins are just like a lot of other families. Teenage daughter Zoe rolls her eyes at everything her parents say and has more interest in the boyfriend she’s been forbidden from seeing and her smart phone than her family. Son Charlie fiddles with remote control toys and is reaching the age where he begins to question authority. And Mary (Lena Heady) is the matriarch of the clan, carefully balancing everyone’s growing impatience with each other. They take refuge within their fortified home come Purge night, just like every other year, but when Charlie gives a hunted man sanctuary, everything falls horribly off the tracks. Because soon the Purge revellers hunting the refugee the Sandins find themselves harbouring soon come knocking with an ultimatum. Hand their prey over or they kill everyone. Soon the Sandins find themselves hunting for their reluctant refugee before the murderers laying siege to their home come for him. And them.
The Purge isn’t going to spark a wave of social commentary, it isn’t that epic in scale, but it confronts you with some very unsettling questions regardless. DeMonaco seems at home telling these kind of stories, where the conflicts between his characters illustrate the larger point against a tense backdrop. The Negotiator was a perfect example of his preferred storytelling (the excellent friction between Kevin Spacey and Samuel L. Jackson made you forget that the plot was ludicrous).
At the heart of The Purge is a question about the importance of the many outweighing the importance of the few. Before the Purge was conceived, we are told that the United States was dying, its economy in ruins, mired in pointless wars overseas, its crime, poverty and social strife reaching stratospheric levels. Then a newly elected group of leaders, reverently referred to as the new Fore Fathers, invented the Purge. America, we are told, was born anew from the bloody womb of this new phenomenon, but critics point out that not everyone can afford steel gates and video cameras and a dozen guns to protect themselves, and that the Purge is actually the ritual murder of the poor and homeless, the old and the sick (sort of like the Tea party’s wet dream). And in fact, the wealthy prey almost exclusively on the poor, feeling that murdering those beneath them is divine entitlement. The wounded stranger who hides within the Sandin’s home is homeless himself, with nothing but his clothes and his dog tags to his name. The question then isn’t would you sacrifice the lives of a few for the benefit of the many, but would you sacrifice the suffering and agony of the few to the greedy blood lust of the upper crust for a good employment rate? And if your answer is yes, what happens when you become one of the few to be sacrificed? How much would you still support that equation?
The Purge is nice little bit of entertainment, though keeping with the movie’s theme, the violence is done on an intimate level (it’s more SAW than Die Hard, though the blood is far from being simple gore shown for gore’s sake). But don’t expect to be distracted too much, because you’ll find yourself asking questions you might not like the answer to.