By Shane M. Dallmann
And here I thought THE INTERNSHIP was destined to win the weekend. Looks like unless you’ve got a FAST/FURIOUS budget that horror really IS the way to go this year. Fine by me!
Okay–you got most, but not all of this movie’s set-up from the trailer. America, under its “New Founding Fathers” some ten years in the future, has reduced crime and unemployment to nearly nothing thanks to the annual “Purge,” during which all crime, murder included, is legal for twelve hours once per year (Ah, but there ARE exceptions, including immunity for high-ranking government officials, so there.) Radio talk show banter sets up the moral/political debate… does the opportunity to release our most violent impulses once a year truly make us better people? Or might the Purge really be about the elimination of the defenseless poor, the better to strengthen the economy?
So there’s that to “think” about, but James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) doesn’t care to… he’s made a killing (sorry) selling security systems and he believes he’s going to hunker down with his family behind steel walls and let everybody ELSE take their chances on Purge night while he avoids getting his own hands dirty.
Ah… no. Complication Number One: his daughter’s boyfriend (whom Sandin wants out of her life) manages to sneak inside before the walls come down. Complication Number Two: young son Charlie (Max Burkholder) takes pity on a terrified homeless man and lets him through the barricade. Complication Number Three: the completely legal Purge mob (Ivy League yuppies in Halloween masks) find out where their target is hiding. So unless Sandin gives him up…
…WAITAMINNIT! Wasn’t this called STRAW DOGS last time? And the time before that? Yeah, okay, the characters are given different personalities (no lecherous ‘rednecks’ here) and a different story dynamic, but when siege comes to siege, we’re right back down to formula. Sometimes SHAMELESS formula. For instance, while the homeless veteran “target” may not have been identified by race in the screenplay, I’ll bet you anything that everybody imagined him black when they read it (could you push the buttons any harder?)… making it almost silly that the Sandins’ well-off (but not as well-off as THEM, hint-hint-hint) neighbors include a mixed-race couple given virtually nothing to DO but silently imply “Hey, we’re not racist!” on behalf of the filmmakers. Of course, one half of the couple consists of Chris Mulkey, which is still nice for TWIN PEAKS fans, and HE gets a few good lines in…
This is the sort of film that falls apart AFTER you think about it. Okay, James is the local security guy, so there’s a reason he stays in town right up through Purge Day rather than fleeing the country for a week. But if he’s really as rich as the movie implies, why doesn’t he pay some top-of-the-line mercenary snipers to PROTECT his family ahead of time? And so on and so on, but the point is that that didn’t occur to me while I was WATCHING the film. And the good news is that THE PURGE does what it does well very VERY well.
No complaints about the cast: in addition to the dependable Ethan Hawke, Rhys Wakefield (SANCTUM) is, frankly, terrific (and terrifying) as the “polite” leader of the masked Purge squad (and gets most of the best dialogue), but the real find here is young Burkholder as the intense, soft-spoken Charlie. Oh, his creepie-peepie mobile camera also boasts a nicely disturbing design until one suddenly compares it to one of the better-known supporting TOY STORY characters. And as Mom, Lena Headey doesn’t really get to do a whole lot, but GAME OF THRONES fans tell me that she makes “that face” again (whatever that means).
Best of all, writer/director James DeMonaco has undeniable chops for mounting harsh suspense/shock sequences and making the bursts of graphic violence truly count every time. The film held my attention from beginning to end and made me jump when it wanted me to, so between the performances and the direction, we DO get a brutally efficient thriller no matter what it’s calling itself this time. The only time it falters is (of course) towards the end… the final crisis could have ended abruptly and appallingly, but instead it’s dragged out MORE than long enough to give you an opportunity to think about it and guess what’s going to happen about thirty seconds before it actually happens. Too bad about that. THE PURGE is still worth seeing for the essential thrill ride, even if it isn’t REALLY worth thinking about afterwards.