Cringing at The Purge

Ethan Hawke’s latest barely gets below the surface of its intriguing premise.

It’s a brave, new world and the New Founding Fathers have decreed a new holiday, one that has saved society. The time is here for the Annual Purge, a 12-hour period of anarchy that is not only encouraged but celebrated. All crime — theft, assault, even murder — is legal and emergency services are suspended. The idea is to satiate man’s baser urges, that they might more easily be contained the rest of the year with the resulting catharsis. The poor, who can’t afford security, become fodder for a cadre of entitled sociopaths in crested jackets and sweater vests, armed and looking for kicks.

James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) is one of the Haves; a higher-level corporate stooge, he makes a living selling home security upgrades. In fact, his upcoming bonus comes thanks to outfitting almost his entire upper class neighborhood; he, more than most, owes his success to the upcoming melee. James is headed home to wile away the next half day with trophy wife Mary (Lena Headey), sullen, love-struck teenaged daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and creepy, naive son Charlie (Max Burkholder).

After a less-than-charming family dinner, the fam gathers ‘round the Emergency Broadcast System’s warning to make things official and the house is locked down. But James and family are in for a few surprises this Purge. For starters, Zoey’s 18-year-old boy toy sneaks in, intent on a man-to-man with dear old Dad. And what happens when a hunted homeless man screams for help and his hunters come a-callin’?

While The Purge isn’t nearly as bad as it looks, there’s a better, even good, movie scratching below the surface, clamoring to get out like the rampant, collective id of its own characters. Instead, a promising concept delivers only a shallow bucket of viscera, barely delving into the wealth of potential commentary on the human experience. The film is frustrating, with nuggets of highbrow entertainment buried under the escapist revelry of shotguns racking and axes swinging.

The titular Purge takes place at the Vernal Equinox, a time for pagan sacrifice, right around the corner from the Hebrew Passover, both of which dovetail nicely with the Shirley-Jackson’s-“The-Lottery” vibe of the whole affair. Or the protagonist’s family name, Sandin, an obvious and ironic reference to Augusto Sandino and the Sandinista National Liberation Front. Not that any of this is actually made clear; rather than fatten up the emaciated 85-minute run time, the filmmakers instead rely on clubbing viewers like a pack of baby seals with the most basic of irony — “he sells security; get it‽”

Hawke, in the twilight of his career, makes an interesting father-knows-best-turned-badass-dad. Game of Thrones fans will find it hard to not hate Headey and the shallow role she’s given won’t help. Kane and Burkholder’s roles are forgettable, save for wanting to strangle both characters. Rhys Wakefield makes for a delightfully deranged patrician predator as the Polite Stranger.

The Purge is a tale of the film that could have been. But hey, it’s not like bad storytelling precludes commercial success; Iron Man 3 perched at no. 5 of the top-grossing films of all time reminds us of that. Digression aside, if you’re looking to binge, avoid The Purge.

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