Ethan Hawke is one of those actors that I don’t actively consider when I think ‘movies’, but whenever he turns up, going back to his unsuccessful sci-fi debut in ‘Explorers’ (1985), I like what he’s putting out. Lately, Hawke has become something of a growing fixture in the ‘genre’ market, with flicks like ‘Daybreakers’ (2009) and ‘Sinister’ (2012) having been recently released to decent acclaim and healthy ‘bank’. “The Purge’ is another notch in THAT particular belt for Hawke.
The bleak and contemplative story takes place in a ‘what if’ cinematic universe, in the year 2022. It’s a ‘time’ where Society seems to have found an effective yet morally questionable method of ‘taming the beast’ in Mankind’s inherently violent nature, resulting in the most staggeringly low crime rates EVER. ‘The Purge’ refers to a predetermined 12 hour period in which ALL of Society (with a teeny percentage of ‘exceptions’) is let ‘off the chain’ to indulge in an orgy of hardcore crime and depravity, with no regard for legal consequences. We meet The Sandin Family, with Ethan Hawke as the husband/father ‘James’ and Lena Headey (‘300’) entering the scene as his wife ‘Mary’. They have two kids, both of whom I didn’t recognize which, as usual, helped me to believe in the situation. ‘James’ is a successful salesman for a top-rated security company, which just happened to outfit the entire surrounding neighborhood in the gated yuppie ‘community’ they live in. Their plan, for the night of the upcoming ‘purge’, is to wall themselves into their high-tech fortress and peacefully wait out the violence and horror occurring just outside. Unfortunately, their ‘sensitive’ teenage son breaks down and lets a bloodied and panicked homeless man into their residence. It’s not long before a group of preppy, murder-minded psychos arrive in order to claim their prize, the terrified but dangerous derelict, who is now somewhere in the darkened recesses of the home. The family must desperately band together to fight off the threats, both inside and out.
One key area that must be mentioned when discussing THIS flick is the tone. The director, James DeMonaco (a dude I was not previously familiar with) does a very commendable job with the underlying sense of dread that permeates this plot-line. Right from the beginning, with the credits rolling over a slew of CCTV footage of violent acts (not all of which were fabricated for the flick), I was set ‘on edge’. The entire moral question that the plot rides on is an interesting one to use to lay down the foundations for what is, essentially, a ‘slasher’ flick. Only here, the ‘unstoppable killer’ is Society itself.
As the tense narrative played out, I couldn’t help but to be reminded of two other films out there, ‘Panic Room’ (2002) and ‘The Strangers’ (2008). ‘Panic Room’, for the element of a lethal ‘cat n mouse’ game in one, claustrophobic location, and ‘The Strangers’ for the idea of the relentless yet random and impersonal ‘home invasion’ motif. Mix in an eerie ‘social commentary’ and a competent ‘eye’ behind the lens, and you’ve got a surprisingly effective thriller, made all the more surprising by the fact that it asks some disturbing ‘what if’ questions of it’s audience; questions that may linger well after the credits have stopped rolling. That, to me, is a clear-cut sign of effective and thoughtful film-making.
Much like my review for Hawke’s previous film ‘Sinister’, I have to give The Man props for his ‘grounded’ portrayal of another relatable ‘family man’. Like THAT film, his interactions with wife Headey and the kids came off as more or less believable, which goes a long way toward making the perilous stakes raised by the script tangible, as we develop a connection with The Protaganists, we automatically root for them to ‘make it’, and hope that no harm comes calling. Which, in turn, makes it all the harder and more effective when/if it does.
The pacing here is nicely laid out, with a ‘slow burn’ lead-in to the Main Conflict. Once THAT kicks off, the tension and suspense never let up. The story also throws a couple nice (well, kinda nasty, actually) twists at our bloodied hero’s n heroines (and subsequently, us) that certainly raised my eyebrow more than once. The phrase ‘out of the frying pan…into the fire’ rattled through my pea-sized brain on, at least, two occasions.
The ‘styling’ of the flick was quite economical and efficient. There was a slick ‘sheen’, but it wasn’t ‘in your face’ about it. The film is quite dark…and I don’t just mean the tone. Being that the Sandin’s house has it’s power cut by the murderous hooligans outside, the interior is rendered virtually pitch-black. That being said, at no time did the darkness take away from my viewing experience, unlike…say…(boo hiss!)…’Alien vs Predator- Requiem’ (2007), which literally had the lights turned down SO low…that you couldn’t see a goddamn thing on-screen! Here, effective use was made of the available light; mostly flashlights or Night Vision (on a creepy little RC tank/baby).  The overall effect of having the Sandin’s trusted sanctuary suddenly become this strange and threatening maze was a sweet way to keep the dynamic ‘unbalanced’.
‘The Purge’ is a competently-crafted thriller that, beneath the violence and fear, asks some interesting moral questions about our raw. base instincts, and their place in a modern society…while visually delivering a visceral (and cerebral) ‘oomph!’. Could the ebb and flow of Crime be contained by such a horrible ‘steam valve’ plan? Would people actually partake even if they didn’t NEED to? Would the mental rigors of subjecting The People to such a ‘control’ mechanism not result in wide-spread PTSD, which would just lead to Societies collapse anyway? And so on. Some interesting points are raised by this nasty little piece of thrilling escapism. If this line of thought intrigues you, and you like a good, unapologetic thriller once in a while…give it a shot! It’s worth it.