Good as that idea is, there were worries going in that it was so high concept that it simply couldn’t support the internal logic for a full movie. Luckily writer/director James DeMonaco skillfully avoids the audience questioning this by breezing past the plausibility of the situation and instead concentrating on how the practicalities of it affect day to day life. From kids studying the history of the night in school, the practise of placing blue flowers outside your house to show support for the Purge, to the fact lead and father figure James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) makes his from selling security systems to keep people protected from the Purge. The immediate normalising of the event in a family situation allows us to quickly buy into scenario which is crucial if we’re not to be sat there from the beginning just questioning the ludicriousness of the institution for 85 minutes. Yes, it’s a convoluted way of setting up a reason for the lack of emergency services in a home invasion movie, but it adds a novel layer to the film.
The concept of The Purge is certainly high. It’s also an intriguing one. In the near future America has managed to cut all unemployment and homelessness to 1% by suspending all emergency services and legalising all crime for one night a year. In doing so, the hope is that all the grudges, aggravations and pent up feelings can be unleashed without repercussions, turning citizens into happier, more productive people.
Chaos is thrown into the lives of the Sandins however, as just before their house is fully locked down, their son Charlie (Max Burkholder) lets in a mercy-seeking Bloody Stranger (Edwin Hodge). Following his trail comes a pack of bloodthirsty youths apparently from a public school, lead by Polite Stranger (Rhys Wakefield). With the Bloody Stranger hiding somewhere in the house, and the youths unable to gain access, the Polite Stranger assures the Sandins they must hand their quarry over to him, or they will break in with incoming equipment and kill them all.
It’s unfortunate however, that the concept is explored minimally. Yes, we briefly skip over questions of whether unemployment and homelessness is down due to the cathartic release of the night, or whether those without a home or job lack the means to defend themselves, and so people in those categories are effectively annually culled. Yes, the system is both questioned and supported by the opposing youth groups in the film. But it isn’t a major concern of the narrative and you can’t help it’s a bit of a missed opportunity.
This lack of exploration of the wider theme is a double-edged blade however, and does come with the advantage of lending the film a nihilistic tone. Even those who don’t support the Purge never express sentiments of bringing it to an end; everyone one has to live with it, whether they embrace it or not.
This lack of exploration, and focus on the minutiae of the event does work to give The Purge a very 70s vibe. Recalling the original Assault on Precinct 13 the lack of wider exploration and very tight focus on the main characters uses our lack of understanding to amp up the atmosphere.
Its crucial then that the main characters are as accomplished in their roles as they are. As already mentioned Ethan Hawke plays father James Sandin, and as ever, he’s very watchable. Clearly profiting from the situation which has seen his fortunes dramatically increase, he initially starts out as a slimy, dislikeable yet relatable character. At a crucial moment James undergoes a change of heart however, and both Hawke and DeMonaco work hard to bring the audience’s feelings towards the character about, and it really works; as we somehow find ourselves rooting for the man we hated literally seconds ago. It’s a really nice piece of work from Hawke and a reason why he really deserves some higher profile fare.
Following in the wake of Dredd, Lena Headey pops up another genuinely interesting sci-fi here. While she isn’t given the chance to chew the scenery here, she still acquits herself well, if unremarkably. Its unfortunate that the script doesn’t give her a little more to play with personality-wise. While she’s given plenty to do, she does come across a little stock. Still, as the film plays out we increasingly focus on her character Mary, and she begins to come out of her shell and delivers the equal to Hawke’s performance come the finale.
Edwin Hodge puts in a standout turn as Bloody Stranger. While he’s barely onscreen and says very little, he’s an enigmatic character, and the fact he comes out as one of the things you’ll most remember about the film, it’s a testament to his performance and the shadowy cinematography and lighting.
The equally imaginatively named character Polite Stranger is also effectively threatening, if not terrifying. The names way both Polite Stranger and Bloody Stranger are used, film, written and even named really brings hammers home the 70s style of the film, and both their lack of fleshed out motivations, strange behaviour and pivotal roles in the film despite this, bring an immediacy to the proceedings that explanations would have robbed them of.
As Zoey, Adelaide Kane is perhaps the weak link. While she’s not especially bad, she is mostly there to have a good scream and be the vulnerable point of the family. She does however form the basis of a great moment involving her dad and her boyfriend Henry (Tony Oller) that really takes advantage of the rules of the film.
Balancing this out though is Charlie. Burkholder manages to be entertaining and arguably the most relatable character in the film. With a strong moral code he seeks to enforce, its an usual way to treat a character so young in a film and it works very nicely. While his gimmick of the remote-controlled camera-car might seem a tad reminiscent of something from the end of Bond saga classic A View to a Kill, and it is needlessly, seld-consciously creepy looking, it is an enjoyable element of the film and does serve to give us some of the best shocks.
Speaking of shocks, is The Purge all that scary? No, its not ‘scary’, per se, but it is assuredly tense. There was a palpable atmosphere in the screening and the prudent running time and focus on characters, and not ideologies, is a wise move that helps make this one of the more interesting sci-fi horrors to surface from the genre in a while.
If you’re in the market for something that puts a new spin on the familiar with atmosphere, tension, solid performances and some choice shocks, take part in The Purge.
By RJ Bayley.
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