The Purge positions utopia as a reborn United States, with 1 percent unemployment and staggeringly low crime. But here’s the trade-off: One night a year, all crime is legal. This cleansing of the soul sates our national bloodlust and then everything returns to normal.
Whenever the feasibility of the annual government-sanctioned purge is mentioned, home security salesman James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) bluntly proclaims, “It works.” OK … but how? Maybe a system targeting the weak and unemployed would lower crime and unemployment among those people, although the War on Drugs sure struck out. But why would a night of terror suppress everyone else’s appetite for violence?
If you’d bother to consider the message the movie is trying to send, you’d also get bored by the fact that it never formulates that message in a comprehensive way. But as exquisitely stupid as The Purge is, it’s nearly as impressively spun. There’s solid action, very good pacing and the kind and amount of bloodshed you’d expect.
If this film were asking questions instead of making blanket statements, then a good place to start would be how much inherent danger society could stand in exchange for the possibility of serenity and prosperity. More than likely, we all practice that balancing act: Would you buy a house on Balzar Avenue between Martin Luther King Boulevard and Revere Street if it were cheap and convenient, even though it might have a higher crime rate? Or would you live further away and pay more just for the peace of mind? What would you take your chance with?
Sandin explains to his young son that he and his wife (Lena Headey) never participate in the purge because they don’t feel the need to kill or get revenge. It’s an obvious switch that has to be flipped, but director James DeMonaco makes it too obvious. Sandin seems pretty comfortable militarizing himself, but holding a weapon and knowing you need to use it are two entirely different things. He never has to come to grips with it like anyone else would, even if it was during the most blood-erful time of the year. Giving Sandin just a moment’s hesitation would create some sorely needed gravity here.
The raw nerve The Purge does touch, maybe accidentally, is the gun control debate. Are we safer with more guns on the street or less? Would moviegoers in Aurora have stood a better chance if one or more Batman fans fired back, or would that have only intensified the carnage? Yes, there’s always the threat it could go horribly wrong, the argument goes, but X times out of 10, you’re better off. So what’s X and is that worth it?
By the time the invaders make their way into the home of Mr. and Mrs. James Sandin, The Purge is out of bullets and can’t even plant that idea in the subtext. It just becomes a shootout. Whether or not it’s for the ultimate good of society is hard to say, but it looks suspiciously like a lot of people dying for no reason.
THE PURGE Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Rhys Wakefield, directed by James DeMonaco, rated R, 85 mins.