A decade in the future, the United States has been transformed by a new political regime that has managed to all but eradicate crime and unemployment. Every year in March, a 12-hour period is given over to an event called the Purge – a murderous twist on Halloween trick-or-treating, where prosecution for any offence is suspended and the populace is given free rein to head out into the streets and do as it pleases.
For many, this means donning masks and killing whoever they can find, while for well-to-do types like security hardware salesman James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) the Purge means heading back to his gated community and dropping the steel barriers surrounding his lushly-appointed house.
Unfortunately for this modern-day prince in his castle, not all is well within the stronghold; he and his elegant wife Mary (Lena Headey) are parents to intelligent yet neurotic young son Charlie (Max Burkholder), who harbours doubts about the morality of the Purge, and wayward teen daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane), who’s infatuated with a lad who’s a bit too old for her. Between their dysfunction and the masked lunatics lurking outside, events conspire to shatter the family’s illusion of safety.
Following a confident opening title sequence in which the soothing tones of Claude Debussy run counter to the casual violence of shootings and stabbings captured on security cameras, writer and director James DeMonaco ensures that events unfold briskly. The history surrounding the annual bloodletting festival are briefly introduced, and the scene’s set for a disquieting, spikily violent siege thriller that is, at its core, a reworking of such claustrophobic movies as Assault On Precinct 13 and Straw Dogs (DeMonaco even wrote the so-so 2005 Assault On Precinct 13 remake, which also starred Hawke).
Hawke, who featured in another of producer Jason Blum’s low-budget genre films, Sinister, plays a similar character here: a family man of dubious moral fibre who spends a considerable amount of time exploring the darkened corridors of his house, eyes shimmering with fear. Hawke and the rest of the cast put in decent performances in a film that has little time to dwell on character nuance; really, the high concept is the star here, and it’s a strong one.
Although its siege template isn’t particularly new, DeMonaco’s addition of social commentary and hints of dystopian sci-fi add an intriguing slant. By staging its purge, the film’s future government not only provides a vent to an oppressed populace, but decimates the disadvantaged, who have no access to the weapons and expensive security that the Sandin family take for granted. A certain type of social and economic equilibrium has been struck, but at a dire cost to everyone but the most wealthy.
These are timely and thought-provoking subjects to explore in a relatively low-budget genre film, particularly one that occasionally resembles a Paranormal Activity flick (a series which Jason Blum also produced), with its jump-scares and occasional forays into first-person suspense-building courtesy of a frankly terrifying doll/camera/radio-controlled car contraption created by computer whiz kid, Charlie.
In fact, The Purge is, at times, more satisfying as a piece of commentary than it is as a dark thriller. A disappointing tendency to signpost certain elements of the plot deadens the impact they may have had, and one or two character choices seem rather odd in retrospect, including one character’s decision to suddenly obey the orders of that creepy doll/radio-controlled car thing mentioned above.
The Purge also suffers from a concluding 10 minutes that coasts rather than thunders to a climax, and a series of cliff hangers which, disappointingly, end in markedly similar ways. In its favour, The Purge has some quite impressively staged action scenes, a handful of sequences that chill the blood (including the honk of a horn that signals the start of the 12-hour slaughter) and, best of all, an actor named Rhys Wakefield.
The last time I saw Wakefield, he was panicking in a soggy cavern in the James Cameron-produced survival adventure, Sanctum. Here, he’s a revelation. A grinning, immaculately-dressed rich kid who plays the leader of a crowd of masked Purge murderers, he’s equal parts Patrick Bateman and Alex DeLarge. An early shot of Wakeman, standing on the family’s front porch and grinning maniacally, is the most effective in the film, and his crisply-manicured performance crystalises everything that’s interesting about The Purge: a character whose benign respectability is a flimsy mask for his utter lack of compassion.
The rest of the film can’t reach the bloodcurdling brilliance of this one moment: the nameless, eerily handsome leader, beaming as he talks of his right to kill whomever he pleases. If The Purge is a modern retelling of Poe’s The Masque Of The Red Death, with Ethan Hawke as Prince Prospero, then Wakeman is the story’s crimson figure, the bringer of death to a self-interested gated community.
Had DeMonaco staged the rest of The Purge as sublimely as this, we could have been in for a low-budget A Clockwork Orange for the 21st century. Instead, it’s an uneven yet supremely watchable anomaly in a summer of glossy, expensive diversions.
The Purge is out on the 31st May in UK cinemas.
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