Review: ‘The Purge’ squanders its few good ideas as well as Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey

One of the reasons I fell in love with horror films early in my development as a film fan was because I realized that you could tell any story and grapple with any topic, and you could do it by dealing in metaphor. The horror films that I think cut the deepest are the ones that have something real to say about who we are and what marks us, and just because they feature corpses or werewolves or creatures from space, it doesn’t mean they are any less emotionally or intellectually valid than any other form of film. They just smuggle their meaning a little more.

The flip side of that is when you see a horror film that thinks it’s doing something profound while completely and utterly missing the mark, and “The Purge” is a fantastic example of that. Written and directed by James DeMonaco, the film starts with a pretty hefty premise for audiences to swallow. Set in the near future, the US government has decided to pick a single day of the year where they suspend all emergency services for 12 hours, and everything is legal. That includes murder, although there are a few rules. Nothing above a certain category of weapon types (so I’m assuming no nukes) and there are several Federal employees including The President who are off-limits. Otherwise? Feel free.

The film rationalizes the premise by stating that it has drastically reduced the rate of violent crime, serving as a pressure valve for the impulses to lead us to do terrible things to one another. Ethan Hawke plays James Sandin, a guy who makes his living selling expensive security systems to people, using the Purge as his greatest tool to help play on people’s fear. He’s married to Mary (Lena Headey) and their kids are Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and Charlie (Max Burkholder), and each year, when the Purge rolls around, they lock everything down and ride it out in safety.

Yeah, that’s gonna work.

Very quickly, things go wrong when Charlie sees footage from the live camera feed outside the house, where a bloodied homeless man (Edwin Hodge) is running down the street, begging for help. Charlie feels badly for him, and he opens the security gates of the house to allow the guy into the house. At the same time, Zoey snuck her much-older boyfriend Henry (Tony Oller) into the house, unaware that his entire goal is to shoot her father for trying to prevent them from dating.

Look, I have no problem with a film that stays in one location for pretty much the whole location, as long as the writing and the direction supports that decision. That is not the case with “The Purge,” which undercuts its own premise with some ridiculous decisions, both from the characters and the filmmakers. When a group of masked young men and women shows up outside the house, they demand that James send out the homeless man or they’re going to find a way into the house to kill everyone. Almost immediately, everything goes to hell, and then everyone runs around the house, and the family finally learns to “Straw Dogs” it up, and The End. That one sentence pretty much explains the film.

There are so many things wrong with the film that it’s hard to know where to start. I think Rhys Wakefield, who plays the main guy in the group of rich kids who show up outside, desperately needs someone to tell him to take it down a few notches. He is ridiculously over the top, and so he feels like a cartoon, not an actual threat. As I mentioned, he and his friends are all wearing masks, which makes no sense at all. If The Purge is legal and if it’s done by pretty much everyone, why would you wear a mask? After all, if they do this every year, it would help them to develop a terrifying reputation. This way, anyone could be under the masks. Either way, it’s all somewhat pointless. No one acts like a normal human being, and their choices as characters are frustratingly short-sighted. Ethan Hawke tries his best, but the script fails him, and the same is true of Lena Headey. It feels like they should be in another movie because this material is below both of them, but I give them credit for at least trying to liven things up.

Worse, I think the film is morally confused, and possibly even completely amoral. It’s the sort of movie where you’re supposed to cheer once the family starts to turn the table and kill off the loonies invading their home. The film doesn’t even try to grapple with the big questions that the premise suggests, and that bothers me fundamentally. I wish the film had even the slightest interest in the outside world. There’s a sequence near the end of the film involving the neighbors that feels like an excuse to try to keep things provocative, but it’s telegraphed at the start of the film, and it’s ridiculous to see how they make it feel like this all matters or it reflects the real world. I wish they would have really grappled with some of our ugliest natures, but this is witless and completely confused about what it’s trying to say.

I don’t have the energy or the inclination to describe this one any further. It depresses me to see a film that does almost everything wrong. It’s not the worst film I’ve seen this year, and not by a long shot, but I can’t recommend this to anyone. I would hope that even the most undiscerning fans of horror can recognize that this one is a violent, brainless mess.

“The Purge” opens this Friday.