6/13/2013 - Once a year, Americans are free to kill and destroy with immunity from prosecution in The Purge, a maddening horror movie starring Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey.
Some few years hence, in the middle of a terrible triple-dip recession or something, a violent, crime-ridden America comes up with a plan: for one 12-hour period each year, all emergency services are offline. Kill, destroy, steal, whatever — it’s The Purge, a time when the country purges itself of its horrible impulses allowing for a basically crime-free and one-percent-unemployment lifestyle the rest of the year. (One percent unemployment, you ask, why, how — what? If details like that are going to bug you, this movie will drive you nuts like a particularly itchy mosquito bite in the middle of your back.) Some people spend the Purge hunting (looking for people to kill and general mayhem); others hunker down just trying to survive it.
The Purge is great for James (Hawke). A security system salesman, he does a brisk business in flimsy-looking steel doors and camera surveillance — why, he’s even been able to afford an extra wing on the house. When Purge night comes along, he plans to huddle in his home with his wife Mary (Headey), their teenage daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and their younger son Charlie (Max Burkholder).
But mopey Zoey heads off to her room, where the older boy she’s been dating (against her parents’ wishes) has snuck into the house to spend Purge night with her. Mary, ambivalent about the whole Purge thing, gets in some treadmill time. Charlie meanwhile watches the outside surveillance cameras. When a stranger, bloodied and shouting for help, comes running into the neighborhood, Charlie decides to raise the security doors and let him (Edwin Hodge) in, setting off a series of events that puts his family at risk.
I struggled to pay attention to the movie The Purge because I was so wrapped up in the concept of The Purge. All crime is legal? The movie focuses on sport-hunting strangers and acquaintances but what about, like, bank fraud? Do hackers spend 12 hours chasing electronic transfers, trying to out-hack each other with all the money ending up in one guy’s Cayman Islands account? While The Purge somehow ties the idea of open-season on thrill killing to a brighter economy, it seems to ignore the “stealing stuff” part of criminal activity. Also, what about drugs? Do people only buy and sell drugs once a year, with drug-dealers earning their entire annual income in one night? And, then, what, come 7:01 a.m. the next morning, no other drug dealer will go after his haul or his territory until the following year? And what about the drug users, who will surely run through their “year’s supply” in short order — they’ll wait a year to break-and-enter to raise cash for more drugs?
And, OK, you take out your simmering rage on your boss and kill him but then next year his avenger comes after you — not justice, exactly, but you can’t say there are no consequences to killing someone if every year the Purge becomes a night of score-settling for prior Purges.
Which brings us to: who would use the justice system at all? You can file a police report against the guy who broke in to your house or side-swiped your car and didn’t leave a note, or you could just make sure that your surveillance is good enough that you can identify him and then wait until next Purge and kill him. Heck, what’s the wait on small claims court these days? Why spend months in court waiting for that person to make good on his debts when you can just add his name to the Purge-night list? Or maybe he’ll have a list of all the people he owes money to and clear his financial slate once a year by Purging all his creditors. How could you ever enforce a contract — or any kind of law, really — if people can just kill their way out of any tough situation no more than a year later?
And, as the movie wore on, I found myself absolutely in a panic over insurance: can you get Purge-night insurance? How does that work? And, again, if all crime is legal, so is insurance fraud!
I’m sorry — what, oh, the movie? The movie is just basically scared people in a building while scary people outside try to break in and kill them. Change “up-scale suburban neighborhood on Purge night” to “cabin in the woods” and you’ve seen this movie dozens of times. Aside from the metal panels that come down over all doors and windows, there seem to be no special Purge-fighting preparations that this family has made, and attackers include a group of people with machetes — nothing particularly exciting there. (Jodie Foster’s character had a more elaborate set up in the 2002 movie Panic Room — do they not have Netflix in the future? Did nobody even think to build a panic room? If panic rooms became the new real estate must-have — en suite master bath, granite counter tops, panic room — then maybe I could understand 1 percent unemployment.)
Without giving too much away, the movie does, as a movie and not just a thought experiment, have one thing going for it and that’s Lena Headey (who lately has spent most of her Game of Thrones screen time as Cersei Lannister looking pained at what a messed-up little jerk her boy-king son is). Headey is a total bad-ass. If you remember back to 300, where she played yet another queen, Headey got in many of that movie’s best lines and one really satisfying kill and she did it with the same natural bravado that Gerard Butler and his computer-animated abs had. I think it’s around the halfway point, or maybe a little after, in The Purge where the movie seems to remember that she’s there and look for bad-ass things for her to do. Sadly, it finds these things in the movie’s final moments, leaving you really only with a sense of how much fun she could have been. D+
Rate R for strong disturbing violence and some language. Written and directed by James DeMonaco, The Purge is an hour and 25 minutes long and distributed by Universal Pictures.