Friday, June 7, 2013

Panic Attack: THE PURGE

The Purge is a sociological thought experiment in the guise of a home invasion horror movie. That wouldn’t be so bad if the central thesis weren’t so ridiculous and obvious. The film imagines that by 2022, the United States will have dropped crime rates down to record lows by instituting an annual catharsis. For the next twelve hours, as of the start of the movie, all crime is legal. (“Including murder,” the emergency alert broadcast helpfully (?) reminds.) And just what does writer-director James DeMonaco think would result from this hypothetical time of total immunity? Nothing good, that’s for sure. This imagined world accommodates a night of chaos in return for a completely peaceful 364 days. The movie posits not so controversially that a society without rules of any kind would probably be bad.

Ethan Hawke stars as a wildly successful home security salesman. That makes sense. I guess if the country is going to explode in looting and murder one night a year, the sales of home security installations would naturally skyrocket. As the movie starts he and his wife (Lena Headey) have holed up in their large home with their daughter (Adelaide Kane) and son (Max Burkholder) to wait out the purge. It’s an issue of class. Those who can afford the protection ride out the night just fine. Those who can’t afford to keep themselves safe – the homeless, the poor, and the marginalized – are the ones who end up dead by dawn. Talk about class warfare. As you might suspect, things inevitably go wrong for Hawke and his family.

It all starts when the son shows some compassion and opens the steel barricades to let a homeless man (Edwin Hodge) hide from a roving band of purging youths. The clean cut, prep schoolers stride up to the front door and demand the return of their prey. Their blonde, blue-eyed leader (Rhys Wakefield) presses his face into a security camera and says it’s their right to kill the man. He’s not contributing to society and they have pent up violent impulses. Win-win. The young man speaks with the entitled swagger of a spoiled kid who it’s easy to imagine thinks reading Ayn Rand has explained the way the world actually works to him. The crowd stalks around the mansion’s perimeter, banging on windows and steel doors. They shout an ultimatum: give up the homeless man or they’ll come in and kill them all.

The tidy plot quickly grows tedious as DeMonaco tries to wring much tension out of the power getting cut and the family and their unexpected guest wandering around in the dark, hiding from each other, getting separated, and fretting about what to do. It feels like much of the runtime is given over to Hawke and Headey apparently getting lost in their own home running down dim hallways, waving flashlights, and shouting endlessly for one or both of their children. Charlie! Zoey! After awhile I felt like maybe if I shouted too we could find them and get on with it. (Only a sense of good theater manners kept me quiet.) The danger should feel real. It would be terrifying to be trapped in your own home with a total stranger hiding somewhere in there with you, consequence-free violence and certain death awaiting you just outside your own front door. But the whole thing feels so ephemeral, a clearly ridiculous concept embraced only as an inciting incident without thinking through the total implications of the central idea.

What kind of government would set up this purge? We hear fleeting references to “the new Founding Fathers” and see widespread acceptance of the purge. How did we get here? Whose purposes does this really serve? There’s all kind of intriguing political allegory that could easily be found, but instead the whole thing grows muddled. Hawke grabbing increasingly more powerful weaponry to fend off the purging hooligans gathering outside feels like a stand-your-ground apologia, where armed good guys struggle against, well, armed bad guys, and no matter what anyone does, the cops won’t care come sunrise. Meanwhile, the us vs. them, haves vs. have-nots subtext that rapidly becomes simply text reads as a hyperbolic argument against total deregulation. This is nothing more than a dimly lit, repetitively dumb little thriller that fails to satisfy politically or on its own genre terms.

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