BY VAN ROBERTS
Writer & director James DeMonaco‘s home invasion thriller “The Purge” (*** OUT OF ****) qualifies as both suspenseful and thought-provoking political allegory. The year is 2022, and America revels in a state of idyllic, economic prosperity. Crime rates as well as unemployment have plunged drastically under the inspired political leadership of the New Founding Fathers. Literally, America has been “reborn.” The reason behind our national recovery is the institution of an event christened ‘The Purge.’ Citizens may embark on crime sprees during one 12-hour period annually without fear of prosecution. All emergency services, including police, firefighters, and physicians, are suspended. Indeed, anybody can murder with impunity. During the opening credits, we’re shown ersatz surveillance system videos of people committing blue-collar crimes during the purge. The hypothetical nature of DeMonaco’s narrative comes with some vague rules. We learn from the prologue that no harm must befall high-ranking government officials and citizens cannot wield weapons above a ‘Class 4’ level. The crazies that lay siege to our hero’s house are packing either shotguns, assault weapons, or good, old-fashioned axes. DeMonaco provides scant details behind the ideology of the New Founding Fathers. People like to cleanse themselves on ‘Purge’ of their negative emotions and they praise their victims for sacrificing their lives for their country. Furthermore, he keeps the scope of his premise confined to one high-income, gated community covered with security systems. Clocking in at a nimble 85-minutes, “The Purge” suffers more from its enigmatic origins than from plausibility. DeMonaco references the New Founding Fathers, but we don’t learn much about them. You may see some things coming, but this evocative melodrama has enough surprises to keep you guessing. “The Purge” carries an R-rating so the squeamish should beware, and adults with impressionable children should shun this violent, bloody thriller.
James Sandin (Ethan Hawke of “Training Day”) sells security systems, and he has attained the pinnacle of success at his company with his chartbuster sales. Undoubtedly, the annual Purges have contributed in some small measure to his good fortune. He resides in an upscale community with his wife Mary (Lena Headey of “Game of Thrones”) and their two children, 14-year old Charlie (Max Burkholder of “Daddy Day Care”) and 16-year old Zoey (Adelaide Kane of “Donner Pass”), and they live in reasonable harmony. If anybody can shatter the tranquility of the Sandin house, Zoey’s 18-year old boyfriend, Henry (Tony Oller of “Beneath the Darkness”), who doesn’t stand a ghost of a chance negotiating with her dad, is the best candidate. As the action unfolds, ubiquitous loudspeakers repeatedly warn citizens that the next ‘Purge’ is scheduled to commence at 7 PM and then elapse 12 hours later. DeMonaco makes certain that we know what the Purge is, even if we don’t know the gritty details behind it. Meanwhile, Henry wants to win James over to his side. Henry plans to let events trap him inside the Sandin household for the next 12 hours. While he is holed up with the Sandins, Henry hopes to convert Zoey’s father to his camp. Initially, nobody but Zoey is aware of Henry’s presence. During the pre-Purge period, James and Mary deal with some of their neighbors who are preparing for an active evening of bloodletting. DeMonaco does a good job of foreshadowing their part in the action.
Meantime, James isn’t too concerned with all the mayhem that will ensue at seven. He locks down his house with his state-of-the-art security system that makes the dwelling well-nigh impregnable. Ordinary burglars wouldn’t be able to breach this system. Moreover, the system is equipped with surveillance cameras that enable the Sandins to monitor everything occurring around them. They celebrate the occasion with a dinner, but Zoey isn’t acting civil during this preamble. Charlie is a bit of a home security whiz himself; he has built the equivalent of “Demonic Toys” doll that cruises around in a small, four-wheeled, remote-control contraption. Not long after lockdown, Charlie spots a homeless African-American (Edwin Hodge of “Red Dawn”) in fatigues wandering through the neighborhood. We aren’t told how he got into the gated community. This stranger pleads desperately for mercy because he is the object of a manhunt. James’ considerate son decides to forfeit everybody’s safety and disarms the security system so the stranger can enjoy sanctuary. Of course, something has to shatter the calm in the Sandin household or “The Purge” wouldn’t land the Sandins in the dire straits that follow. Before the night is over, nothing promises to be the same for the Sandins. Not long after they let the African-American into their home, a collection of male and female killers dressed in gaudy costumes with hatchets and high-powered rifles show up on their doorstep. Guess who they want and what they will do to get him?
The performances are strong. Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey make a convincing couple, while Max Burkholder and Adelaide Kane are just as persuasive as their kids. The assailants who surround the Sandin residence are a creepy-looking bunch with their masks and costumes. “The Purge” is cut from the same cloth as movies like “The Hunger Games,” “Panic Room,” “Straw Dogs,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “The Strangers,” “Lakeview Terrace,” and “Assault on Precinct 13.” Incidentally, not only did Ethan Hawke star in the remake of “Assault on Precinct 13,” but also James DeMonaco penned the script. The biggest problem with DeMonaco’s script is the reason the villains target the Sandin estate. You’d think that James would keep closer tabs on his son. The real surprises occur late in the third act after the villains have stormed the house. At one point, you may find yourself screaming back at the screen for our heroes to kill, kill, kill! Clearly, what DeMonaco has written is not as cynical as it seems. Although “The Purge” looks like something the NRA would endorse, you can bet that DeMonaco has crafted a satire to show how extreme the conditions would get to achieve such fascist prosperity.