SAFE AS HOUSES??Ethan Hawke stars in ‘The Purge’.
Live and let die
THERE’S a scene in ‘The Simpsons’ episode ‘Dog of Death’ where the phone rings at police headquarters. Eager to get back to watching the lottery draw, Chief Wiggum answers the call and delivers the immortal words: “No … sorry, you have the wrong number, this is 912.”
‘The Purge’, the new film from James DeMonaco, imagines a dystopian America in the near future where, for one night each year, all crime is legal. Including murder. During the 12-hour window, there’s no point calling the cops, or the hospitals. It’s an intriguing premise.
James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) makes his living selling security systems, so in a country where crime is at an all-time low, the build-up to ‘The Purge’ represents his busiest time of the year. A lawful outlet for American rage? All the Christmases coming together for the home-defence industry.
Some of his neighbours take advantage of state-sanctioned murder to gain revenge on enemies or indiscriminately hack down those who can’t afford shelter. But James and his wife Mary (Lena Headey from ‘Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles’) prefer a quiet night in with their teenage daughter Zoe (Adelaide Kane) and young son Charlie (Max Burkholder).
Their plans are disrupted when a homeless man whose name we never learn (Edwin Hodge) arrives in the neighbourhood, covered in blood and begging for refuge. Young Charlie disarms the security system and lets him into the house. Then a bunch of rich kids turn up intent on murder and mayhem. Warning that James’s security system won’t stand up to sustained assault with heavy equipment, they demand the Sandins turn over their quarry, or else they’ll kill everybody inside.
‘The Purge’ is at its best during the first half. Interesting moral dilemmas arise, the fortunes of the characters shift, and the tension is well sustained. The set-up is clever. Shadows and light are well deployed. A remotely-controlled toy robot and smiley masks add layers of creepiness. A sub-plot involving Zoe’s boyfriend means the family members get separated. There’s a lot of dashing around in the dark, and a decent stand-off.
Having laughed through much of the trailer for its silliness, I found myself largely going with the flow up to that point. Unfortunately, for much of the second half, the movie is a run-of-the-mill home invasion thriller, ‘Home Alone’ on steroids (and without the laughs). A pool ball is deployed as a defensive weapon. Much blood gets spilled. Hawke, a decent actor (like all the other main players), is an unlikely action hero.
There’s a twist involving resentment, and amusing politeness amid the gore – “I’ll go first and then we’ll take turns,” a woman says as knives are sharpened. But some of the inconsistencies one might have earlier been prepared to ignore begin to grate.
Writer-director DeMonaco never brings the action outside the house, and the notion that this one night of chaos is the solution to all of life’s problems is never convincing. We hear occasional voices (on phone-in shows) suggesting a mass killing of homeless people may not be a great thing, but this appears to be a minority view in the imagined USA of 2022.
Despite the high concept, by the end of the picture, I found myself thinking of another character from ‘The Simpsons’. The title of one of the seven flicks starring the Schwarzenegger-esque McBain, the fictional action movie hero, is ‘You Have The Right To Remain Dead’. ‘The Purge’ is certainly cleverer than McBain – but it’s not as good as it might have been.
Rating 6 out of 10