The latest thriller to come out of Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes production company, The Purge is a surprisingly interesting and borderline intelligent affair that has a killer concept and aims for some level of social commentary. It isn’t entirely successful in that regard but there is enough tension to make for an often uncomfortable home invasion thriller.
Set less than a decade into the future, there is virtually no crime and unemployment is at an all time low. The reason for this drastic change? ‘Purge Night’, an annual event where, for one night only, all crime is legal, including murder. There are some rules around the level of weaponry that can be used and high ranking officials are of course untouchable, but essentially anything goes.
There are those who profit from Purge Night, including James Sandin (Ethan Hawke), a slippery security salesman who has made a fortune selling high level security systems to his suburban neighbours to protect their homes from the chaos that rages outside. Hawke gives a solid performance here, his slicked back hair and brash attitude a welcome change of pace from his usual on screen persona.
When the purge arrives, James peacefully locks down his impressive home, his family safely locked inside. There’s wife Mary (Lena Headey), young son Charlie (Max Burkholder) and teenage daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane), currently in a dispute with her parents about the age of her boyfriend Henry (Tony Oller). As the purge begins and the shutters come down, everything is a little too peaceful and you just know it won’t be long before this pristine family home will come under attack.
A few scenes early in the film sign post the source of the Sandin’s impending misery a little too much but there’s a pleasant surprise in the form of Rhys Wakefield’s politely creepy upper-class sadist who gives the Sandins a chilling ultimatum before cutting their power and laying siege to their home. Wakefield is sinister in an overly pleasant way, calling to mind Brady Corbet and Michael Pitt in Funny Games US, with just a hint of Heath Ledger’s Joker coming through in his body language and chilling grin.
As enjoyable as Wakefield’s performance is, it also signals the point that the film begins to squander its intriguing premise and becomes just another home invasion thriller. From there, writer-director James DeMonaco throws out every trope in the book, including an obscene amount of last minute saves. It gets to the point that anytime any character is in peril, you start trying to work out where everyone else is and which one will come to their rescue at the last second.
Ultimately, The Purge plays out like a diluted mixture of Panic Room, The Strangers and various other home invasion flicks. It has a message – the one-percenters are far more capable of cruelty to the lower classes than vice versa – but chooses to beat you over the head with it in the middle of its unfortunately generic and predictable action thrills and spills. That said, it’s admirable that the film even tries to say anything at all and DeMonaco is a perfectly capable director, it’s just a pity that his script – with its genre clichés and crudely drawn characters – lets down the strong premise.