Rarely do horror films these days luxuriate in big ideas. Instead, they are usually a simple formula, based on a rudimentary conceptual framework (cameras capture supernatural activity, madman devises ingenious torture traps), stretched painfully thin over 90 minutes or so. One of the things that makes “The Purge,” a new high-concept horror movie about a utopian society with a very dark secret, so refreshing, is that it actually takes the time to engage in some truly provocative and subversive ideas, and what’s more — these thematic interests never come at the expense of the thrills. “The Purge” manages to be smart, scary, and subversive. In the current horror landscape, this is much rarer than a demonic possession or capturing a ghost on videotape.
The set-up for “The Purge” is ingeniously simplistic: sometime in the not-too-distant future, a utopian society has emerged. People get along, in peace and quiet, with low poverty rates and no crime, because for one cathartic twelve-hour period – known as The Purge – all matter of lawlessness is allowed. Emergency medical services are suspended and whatever you can get away with, including rape, murder, and eating grapes from the produce section of the supermarket without paying for them, is A-OK. It’s a perverse concept and just the idea behind The Purge carries a kicky kind of jolt.
Ethan Hawke plays James Sandin, a man who sells and installs home security systems. He lives in an upper-crust suburban neighborhood with his wife Mary (Lena Headey) and two children, Zoe (Adelaide Kane) and Charlie (Max Burkholder). The neighbors carry a certain degree of restrained animosity towards the family, since they seem to be flourishing while tougher economic hardships have befallen themselves. (If, for one night of the year, your house has to be transformed into a fortress, then it probably makes for a pretty good living.) The Sandins are preparing for a safe night in, while The Purge rages outside their gated doors.
Of course, things don’t go quite as planned, and when a stranger (Edwin Hodge) shows up at their doorstep, Charlie, feeling sympathy, disables the security system long enough for the stranger to slip inside. That in and of itself is something of a problem, but the larger issue is that a group of preppy maniacs, wearing masks that are caricatures of their own expertly chiseled faces, show up looking for the stranger. The leader of the group is played by Rhys Wakefield, looking like he just downloaded the new Vampire Weekend album and speaking with a well-mannered chilliness. He demands that the Sandins release the man or they will get inside the house and kill everyone left standing, including the children. Eep.
“The Purge” is a bottled horror movie, taking place exclusively in the house, which adds an unnerving level of tension to set pieces that would have lost their momentum had they taken place in a larger environment. Writer/director James DeMonaco, who wrote the underrated “Assault on Precinct 13” remake (that also starred Hawke in tough-guy survivalist mode), manages to pose thorny moral questions and is willing to make our supposed heroes incredibly unlikable, all in the service of the movie’s thematic underpinnings. It’s a bold move, and a brilliant one, since a more “straight” version of this story could have been made with more commercial appeal and it would have been much less interesting.
Still, DeMonaco delivers where it counts and there are a number of great flourishes (including a John Carpenter-esque moment where Hawke watches the villains as they surround the house) and surprises that pop up throughout the movie’s swift 85-minute running time. There isn’t a wasted moment in the entire movie, which is also a nice change of pace considering how bloated and overlong most Hollywood product is these days, and Hawke manages to anchor the movie in a viably emotional way, even when he behaves very badly.
If there’s one casualty of the running time, though, it’s characterization. Both the man that the family takes in and the wolves at the door aren’t given any kind of texture or nuance. They just show up, talk a little bit, and hide (or kill). Maybe this was done to emphasize the randomness of The Purge, how it is the great leveler, even if the society claims to be more even. Within this “utopia,” there are still clearly haves and have-nots, and on this night, every member of the social strata is forced onto a similar playing field. But, while it may enrich the movie on a metaphoric level, on a purely narrative one it disappoints. Just because the characters are randomly thrown together by fate doesn’t mean they don’t deserve some kind of back-story or history. It would have made the movie’s last act feel much fuller and have given more of an impact, as the various twists and casualties would have been an earned result of spending so much time with these characters. Instead, it’s just a lark.
Not that the lack of characterization takes away all that much from “The Purge,” and in fact, the lack of specific details makes the possibilities for future films in this world seemingly endless. There are a couple of times when characters refer to “The New Founding Fathers” and it’s hard not to think about the other stories that exist within this reality. Maybe it’s because of the numbing onslaught of “Paranormal Activity” and “Saw” sequels over the past decade, but maybe the most invigorating aspect of “The Purge” is how it might be the launch of the next great horror franchise, one in which subversive ideas are much more important than bottomless buckets of blood. [B+]