There are many ways to unsettle or frighten an audience in the world of cinema. There are probably as many as there are people because there is no telling what might be scary to one person or another. Lately I’ve talked about films that use sound as the device to horrify, and films with such disturbing visions that the interpretation of the horrific acts are left open to the viewer. Today’s film chilled me down to the bone with the utterance of four little words. The Purge, another horror flick pulled together on a meager budget (The Blair Witch method, but with name actors this go round.) pulled in big bucks at the box office, but reviews were mixed and I remained skeptical. It sounded like a mix between The Hunger GameS and The Strangers, both of which were better when they were called Battle Royale and Ils respectively, and I might have taken a pass entirely. Then I heard a little of the political subtext, and while I still wasn’t intrigued by seeing any movies with Ethan Hawke as my protagonist, I thought I’d purge myself of doubt and give The Purge a shot.
In the world of the future, violence and hatred has been eradicated, but one night a year, the titular Purge, everything is on the table. All Americans are invited by “The New Founding Fathers” to indulge in all the rape, murder, and wanton violence they want from seven at night until seven in the morning. The logic being that the resulting catharsis resulting contains the desire to disobey the rest of the year. The film centers its focus on James Sandin (Hawke), his wife Mary (Game of Thrones’ Lena Headey), and children, the sexually budding Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and nerdy recluse Charlie (Max Burkholder). James sells the foolproof security systems that all of his affluent neighbors use, and he’s had such a year that he was able to add a new addition to an already ostentatious home. At seven o’clock, the Sandins go on lockdown, steel plates barring their doors and windows, but the family is disrupted by two unwanted additions, Zoey’s eighteen year old boyfriend and a stranger that Max lets in the home. Problems are only compounded when a group of creepily masked teenagers show up demanding James returns the stranger or else they will come in and murder them all.
I don’t think it’s any spoiler to say that James’ security system isn’t everything his claims make it out to be, and that penetration is when the Purge loses steam. I’m getting ahead of myself though. Let me go back to those four scary words I mentioned earlier. After a montage of violence introducing the viewer to the idea of The Purge, Hawke’s character is introduced listening to talk radio in his car, and that is where the four words are first spoken, “The New Founding Fathers”. The idea that a group of people would step in and adopt a moniker steeped in history in order to effect political change, to bring to fruition radical ideas in which the rich can choose to be insulated from violence or to initiate it on an epic scale, to replace the pantheon of American history that were our real Founding Fathers, that terrifies me. It takes only a small leap of logic to trace the fictitious “New Founding Fathers” to the real, though rarely talked about these days, organizations that sprang up bearing the “Tea Party” moniker. Designed to inspire a correlation to the Boston Tea Party, these groups adopted bygone flags and slogans to further their agenda as “real Americans”. I put that in quotes because I heard it over and over again, and it never got truer. These groups also often fall down social, economic, and racial lines. In the world of The Purge, those lines feel even stronger.
When the group of young ne’er-do-wells show up demanding James’ unwanted houseguest (Edwin Hodge), they claim it is not only their right because of The Purge but also because as the leader of the gang says “that trash only exists for us to purge”. In this dystopia, the underclass is kept in place so there will be viable targets for the moneyed classes to hunt. Not that things are much different now, recent studies show that only three percent of the poorest Americans will ever reach an economic status greater than they were born into. Basically, if you’re born poor, then you stay poor. In the film’s world, the poor are not meant to fight back, and the fact that Hodge’s character killed one of the rampaging, rich Purgers is nearly a greater affront than his refusal to die peacefully. While Hodge’s character is African American, the film seems like a post-racial world because skin tone no longer matters as long as you have the one true color, the green, to provide safety for your family. As I mentioned earlier, that safety proves false, and the Sandin’s soon learn that economic strata will not save you from plain old crazy people or persons with a grudge on their mind. Money provides the illusion of protection, but at the end of the day, everyone has the same weaknesses and chances of death.
Now, let me get down off my soapbox, and talk a bit about the acting in The Purge. Hawke is fine, but I’ve never really warmed to him as an actor. He actually pulls off his role better in the family first, action heavy last third of the film than as the weak, corporate money grabber in the beginning. So the irony, as the film gets less interesting, Hawke gets better. Lena Headey could use some of the protective mothering skills she displays on Game of Thrones here, but again, her character undergoes radical change with her best moments coming in the film’s last ten minutes. One moment in particular near the film’s end was so cathartic that it nearly justifies the experience all around. Adelaide Kane does really nothing with the daughter character, and I thought there was an easy setup for deadly tension between her and her father, but that wasn’t really explored. I much preferred Max Burkholder’s Charlie, and I think many horror fans will wish they had a burnt up baby doll/ robot/ camera. The biggest impression acting wise comes from Aussie actor Rhys Wakefield. Not only did he have a terrifying manner to his privileged Purger, Wakefield’s caricature provided the look for the freakish mask he wore. Sadly, while the rest of his character’s group keeps on their equally disturbing masks, Wakefield only wears his in an introductory scene. Love or hate this movie, you have to admit the masks are freaky. I was quite surprised to find that no one is making them for sale.
The first two thirds of The Purge presents a film that tackles social, moral, and economic issues, but somewhere in the last third it loses steam and descends so much into “stand your ground” that I checked about for George Zimmerman. Over the last forty years, the chasm between the have and have nots in America has greatly widened, and along with it there has been a rise in political movements that lure in social issue voters to cast ballots against their own economic interests. The road that lead to the The Purge may have been paved with good intentions, but I get the feeling that it was achieved though symbolism, social stratification, and manipulation of the public through the media. You know, how things get done these days. I would really love to see more of the politics explored in a sequel rather than a street war or low level action as it did here. The Purge should make us take a pause because we all might dislike a neighbor, or that guy that cut me off in traffic or Guy Fieri or a child rapist or Guy Fieri, but should we be allowed to kill them? Now I would say child rapists and Diners and Drive Ins hosts, maybe, but realistically, of course not. However, as we look upon a political and media landscape that holds sensation over all, where reality TV is looking to push the bounds of entertainment, when the economy is pushing the 1 percent further no further out of reach, and it becomes easy to see The Purge as a warning.