With Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Max Burkholder, Adelaide Kane, Edwin Hodge. Written by and directed by James DeMonaco. Rated R for strong disturbing violence and some language. 85 minutes.
Imagine “Lord of the Flies” set in suburbia and you have some idea of what THE PURGE is like. It’s an allegorical horror story that will provide plenty of thrills and chills, but might also leaving you with something to think about afterwards. Considering how much that is released in the genre is simply disposable, that’s saying a lot.
Ethan Hawke stars as James Sandin, a successful husband and father in an upscale California community. It’s the near-future, which means it looks exactly like ours with one important difference. America is a place of peace and prosperity because the government has instituted an annual event called “The Purge.” Very simply, what this means is that once a year, for twelve hours, all laws and emergency services are suspended and anarchy reigns supreme. You can do whatever you want – steal, kill, burn – with no consequences. Supposedly this provides a release for people who are otherwise productive citizens and also serves to remove undesirables from the population.
James is in the business of selling home security systems, something that proves of great utility during the annual Purge. However, when local preppy thugs find that someone they want has taken refuge in the Sandin residence, the family becomes the focus of the local violence. Now the question becomes whether to turn the man (Edwin Hodge) over to this murderous mob or allow him sanctuary.
Once the premise is established and the plot is set in motion, things are pretty straightforward, which is not to say that there aren’t several surprises along the way. Writer/director James DeMonaco isn’t letting viewers off easy and he doesn’t want you to get comfortable with the ideas expressed. He’s constantly reminding us that the Purge may seem perfectly reasonable to the characters on screen, but it is, in fact, an utterly insane idea. Things happen that are surprising precisely because we don’t want to live in a society where anything goes, even for just twelve hours a year.
Hawke’s presence here may be unexpected given that his career has veered between mainstream movies and arthouse projects, but he adds a touch of class and intelligence to a project that easily could have turned into a modern version of “Death Wish.” Instead we’re invited to share his view that the Purge is a rational response to the human condition and that the response of his company–letting the well-to-do participate if they wish but otherwise be protected in fortress-like homes–is appropriate.
Whether taken as straight out thriller or political allegory, “The Purge” is a smartly-crafted movie that will leave you not only glad you don’t live in that world, but wondering who you could trust among your friends and neighbors if you did. It’s a scary movie that will give you something to talk about on the way home.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He teaches at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.