There are thick chunks, every so often, in the fresh smoothie blend of dystopian-future bullshit that Hollywood has been forcing us to chug over the past few years, chunks that can be hard for the mind to swallow. It’s a wasteland of a genre, populated by gag-fests like Surrogates and Daybreakers, concepts not so much lame as they are disappointing. And come June 7, The Purge will be one of them.
It’s 2022, and for one government-approved night a year, all crimes — robbery, rape and double-parking included, though murder seems strangely enough to be the most popular one — are 100 percent legal for 12 hours. It’s meant as a bit of cathartic chaos for an annual ease-up of the American population so that crime and unemployment stay nice and low for the rest of the year. The Purge’s result, of course, is a systematic elimination of the poor by those rich enough to defend themselves with big guns and even bigger fortified mansions.
Sound cool? It is. But the subtlety of the social commentary works about as well as a baseball bat to the brain.
The Sandins are a quaint little family led by father James (Ethan Hawke, the poor man’s Kevin Bacon as per usual), who sells security technology to his stuffy gated Los Angeles neighborhood to keep them safe when all goes to hell. Bolstered by wife Mary (Game of Thrones' Lena Headey, no longer a royal pain, but still a red wine-sipping one-percenter of a lady) and two teens who might as well be the old leads of Spy Kids, James winds up stuck with a homeless stranger in his locked-down house after his son lets him in out of pity. But the bum has a posse of bloodthirsty private school kids on his trail, led by a greasy nutcase (newbie Rhys Wakefield, who steals the show), all ready to slice and dice their way to finding him.
It’s The Hunger Games meets The Strangers, minus the motivation to sympathize with anyone you’re supposed to be rooting for. And it’s a thrill. But I don’t really know what to call The Purge. Scare factory Blumhouse Productions, which brought you such terrors as all four Paranormal Activities and The Rock’s 2010 Tooth Fairy, try to spin it as a gritty, realistic thriller, something different from their cookie-cutter horror movies full of supernatural hoots and hollers.
But it’s not. Director James DeMonaco replaces Paranormal Activity’s night cam with the Sandins' security cameras, which capture their preppy sadist visitors wearing suits and white dresses while ominously swinging on swings and taunting their prey with their creepy-ass masks and Hitchhiker Kai hatchets. It’s not necessarily part of their usual ghost-jump-scare repertoire, but it might as well be.
Where The Purge disappoints most poignantly is in how little advantage it takes of the potential it had. The moral conflict, the emotional spunk, the modern meaning — they’re all there, but the way they play out is plasticky, buried by flat characters and plot development just about as believable as the film’s dystopian premise. You get close to liking the characters, and you cheer for them, but they don’t follow through with the emotional change they should. Up to the very end, nobody plays the good fight, and the moral message falls on its face. When they win, it’s almost laughable, and when they fail, it’s hard to care too much.
I’ll give The Purge some credit. Unlike its predecessors Sinister and Insidious, it isn’t void of meaningful intentions, or named after scary adjectives. It’s fresh. And it may be all jump scares and classic people-almost-getting-killed-before-miraculous-intervention moments, but The Purge isn’t the worst horror flick out there. It just might be the least fulfilled.