Writer-director James DeMonaco tries to blend a thriller-horror movie and social commentary in “The Purge,” but plot sloppiness and implausible behavior send this promising idea off the rails.
“The Purge” is the type of story that might have been a “Twilight Zone” episode with its blend of terror and cautionary messages about misguided attempts at behavioral engineering. In fact, the main plot concept was explored in the 1970s futuristic story “Rollerball.”
In the not-so-distant future, the United States is thriving. Unemployment is almost non-existent, as is crime, while the economy is flourishing. But the new leaders of the country — tabbed the New Founding Fathers — based upon the notion that human beings still nurture a need to commit violence, allow one night in late March for what is called The Purge. For 12 hours, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., all law enforcement and emergency services are suspended and people are allowed to commit any crime, including murder, without being arrested or charged. Similarly, in “Rollerball,” the game of rollerball, fraught with violence and death, is used as a means of people, as spectators only, relieving tension, with the participants of the sport suffering all the pain and misery.
Of course, The Purge really has two meanings. The primary one is that this one night allows people to purge the pent-up anger and aggression, a release. The underlying objective is to eliminate from society those who are weak and vulnerable.
Thus the class aspect is set in motion. Those who are well enough off financially can arm their homes with security systems, fortify themselves with weaponry, and hunker down for the 12 hours, sometimes hosting parties, and watching the bloody chaos outside via surveillance cameras. Other more adventurous people can elect to arm themselves heavily and go out to hunt people. Those without the means to protect themselves are the sitting ducks.
“The Purge” focuses on one seemingly perfect family. James and Mary Sandin (Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey) are a happy, well-to-do couple. James is coming off a very successful year of selling home security systems. The Sandins have two children — daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane), a sometimes pouty and rebellious teen, and son Charlie (Max Burkholder), a pre-teen who is obsessed with monitoring his vital signs and spends a lot of time working on a creepy toy that is a half-burned baby doll attached to the chassis of a small military tank that he has rolling throughout the house via remote control and has tiny cameras in the contraption so he can see where it is going.
There is a little family tension in that Zoey has a boyfriend, Henry (Tony Oller), who at age 18 is deemed too old for Zoey by her father. Yet he manages to spend a lot of time secretly in Zoey’s bedroom. This little subplot blows up in a totally silly scene that serves no other purpose than to provide Zoey with a life lesson that her boyfriend is a total idiot.
In the hours before The Purge, Mary encounters one of her neighbors, Grace (Arija Bareikis), one of those irksome types who can deliver verbal jabs with a sincere smile. She makes digs to Mary about the recent addition to the Sandin home being paid for by all the neighbors who purchased the security systems sold by James and his company.
James arrives home pre-purge in a giddy mood, given the financial rewards he is about to receive. He views The Purge as an opportunity for a family night. Lock down the house and gather in the living room to watch movies on DVD. However, the kids do not embrace this idea.
The Sandin home also has extensive surveillance camera coverage, and Charlie is watching the monitors when a terrified man is seen running up the street, begging for sanctuary. Charlie disarms the security system long enough for the man to make it inside.
Soon a group of young people have gathered outside the Sandin home, some in masks, and the leader of the group, known as Polite Stranger (Rhys Wakefield), looking into one of the cameras, delivers the ultimatum — bring out the man you have taken in or else we will have no choice but to break in and take him ourselves.
James initially is eager to turn the man over to these people, but he is surrounded by a family that sees the inhumanity of that move, and he has a change of heart.
So “The Purge” becomes a home-under-siege thriller. James and Mary arm themselves for the assault while the young people frolic outside. At this point, viewers might wonder why this group is wasting time hanging around one house in pursuit of one victim when it has 12 hours to move on and go on a rampage and wipe out more people.
Once the attack starts, the movie pulsates with tension and violence and the young killers are seen as nothing more than privileged hooligans. The inevitable twist at the end is no surprise to those who have been paying attention. DeMonaco tries to wrap things up with a message about how low human beings can stoop. By that time, even the acts of passion seem meaningless, as we are ready to wish the whole neighborhood would implode.