USA, 2022. Crime and unemployment have never been lower and America is once again a proud and powerful country. However, all this has been made possible by the introduction of the annual 12 hour Purge when all crime, including murder is legal and all emergency services suspended.
Let me start by saying that unlike many others who scorned it with derision, I found the concept of ‘The Purge’ really grabbing and whilst it would be very difficult to argue the idea is not a million miles removed from something like ‘The Hunger Games’, the more realistic setting of a not too distant future America is refreshing as this takes place in a world that looks no different from our own but obviously becomes horribly twisted as the events in The Purge itself start to play out.
What really surprised me was the power of the opening pre-Purge section, brilliantly setting the scene and placing the audience right into the heart of an already established world. We hear and see news reports disturbingly treating the Purge as something normal, even celebrating its release of hatred that builds up in people and how it is greatly benefiting America.
We follow yuppie security salesman James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) on his way to get to his family home before the ‘lockdown’ and start of the Purge. We get the basic family set-up, gentle mum, weird teenage boy and rebellious teenage daughter. The gentle tension builds up deftly as we draw nearer to the start of the Purge, Sandin locks up his high security house…then as soon as the first gunshots are fired, the entire bottom of the film falls out and so begins an agonisingly slow and dull trudge of yet another house invasion horror.
It’s the strange case of a ‘house invasion’ horror where the invasion doesn’t happen until towards the very end, reducing a great concept from the start into something so tired and conventional. So predictable every was every jump scare and every ‘shocking’ twist that you could practically sing along with the film, the jumps so telegraphed and ‘twists’ that you could see coming from miles away.
The only real ‘twist’ which isn’t giving anything too serious away, is that the house invaders themselves are from rich upbringing and not the stereotypical thugs from other films of this ilk. With the lifeless pacing and lack of anything really happening, at one stage, the film follows Hawke and Headey simply walking about the house in the dark for such a long time I wasn’t sure if the film had got stuck on a loop.
In a bizarre way, ‘The Purge’ can be likened to another recent horror featuring Hawke, ‘Daybreakers’, in which all the hard work of establishing fantastic setting of an alien world on top of our own completely ultimately was completely let down when the threadbare plot turns up. Along with last year’s ‘Sinister’ that’s yet another poor horror film to star Ethan Hawke. I’m not saying it’s his fault or anything, but…
With regards to acting, it still continues to amaze me that Ethan Hawke is able to find work. All his emotions just seem off to me, that he’s never really horrified by the events going on around him, just a bit put-out. He does a great job at the start as a cocky security salesman but as soon as the proverbial hits the fan, out comes his trademark goggle-eyes and hanging lip that makes you want to yell at the screen and tell him to shut his mouth. Worse still is the mistreatment of great talent Lena Headey, the once proud Lannister reduced to a screaming and hysterical wife, the constant foil of her husband’s stupid plans and the moronic acts of her irritating children.
King Joffrey may be one of television’s nastiest characters ever, but at least he’s not an idiot, the son is the one responsible for all that happens to them and never seems to get away scot free! The bright shining diamond in the rough, however, is young Rhys Wakefield, the ‘leader’ of the invaders. Using an enjoyably disturbing polite attitude and an eerie smile, Wakefield literally seems to be the only actor aware of the dross he’s in and takes great pleasure in chewing the scenery to great and unnerving effect.
I could certainly see him as being a strong contender for the next ‘Joker’, just so long as he chooses better films in future.
I’m sure some people will say that I’m giving the film far too much credit by wondering if it was trying to make a cultural statement. Was it about gun crime? The tight grip of religion on America? The extreme inequality of the rich over the poor? The only issue on which the film seemed to stand so very firmly on was that by far the best way to show how violence is such a terrible thing was to show as much awesome and slick looking violence as they possibly could into a 15-rated film.
If the film was restricted to a short of the first 20 minutes only, it would be remembered for being a wonderfully engaging and disturbing chiller of our world gone mad that made you shudder to think of the terrible possibility of that becoming reality. As it is, the brilliant pre-packaging gives way to a mess of a film that goes beyond tedious and you’ve already forgotten as soon as the lights go up.