'The Purge': Gratifying horror that leaves its mark
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
It's probably not apt to call "The Purge" a pleasant surprise, since it's a determinedly unpleasant movie. So I'll just call it a welcome surprise, particularly for genre fans: a nasty little high-concept horror movie that is not only gratifyingly and consistently nerve-jangling but also doesn't shrink from the mordant social consciousness that drives its narrative motor.
The concept is this: In the not-too-distant future, the United States has solved its economic and crime-rate problems by initiating a once-a-year crime free-for-all, a ritualized "purge" during which citizens can commit every kind of crime, including murder, with absolute impunity. Folks who don't want to participate -- the affluent people who can afford security measures that allow them to hole up safely during this period -- can watch a live feed of the mayhem courtesy of our Emergency Broadcast System. It's a far-fetched but hardly unviable premise, a bit like Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" writ large. The movie's opening is a montage of disturbing shot-on-video footage meant to look like it's being culled from security cameras across the nation, but right after that the movie settles on a more microcosmic, and conventionally shot, view.
Ethan Hawke's James Sandin is a happy man on the evening of the purge: A salesman of security systems to residents in gated communities just like the one he lives in, he's had a record year. All is not entirely well at home: While his wife Mary (Lena Headey) seems content and proud, their teen daughter, Zoe (Adelaide Kane), is surly and has an older boyfriend, and young Charlie (Max Burkholder) is withdrawn and builds robots. Once the steel walls that keep the house safe for the family come down, the venerable idea that in a horror movie the patriarchy is at the heart of whatever destructive power is about to be unleashed gets a bit of a workout, but not in such a pat way as one might expect. As it happens, Zoe's older boyfriend has snuck back into the house, and once the armor is down, said boyfriend insists he's going to have a "man-to-man" talk with James. We can see where this is going, and it's no place good, and once it goes there, young Charlie almost simultaneously exercises his pre-pubescent compassion by taking in a homeless man who's been pursued and wounded by a very privileged band of marauding "purgers."
The would-be victim (Edwin Hodge) is African-American, his pursuers on the lily-white side -- they're led by a preppie (Rhys Wakefield) who acts obsequiously polite as he requests the Sandins turn over "the swine" -- and the movie is commendably frank in portraying the title "Purge" as a barely-disguised exercise in both class and race warfare. Material-minded James is so focused on buying a sailboat that when push comes to shove he's ready to throw the stranger in their house to the wolves without compunction. Once he understands what's required of him in order to make that happen, James grows something like a conscience, and makes the decision to stand and fight. The movie does a better job than most I've seen of juggling found-footage style material and more "movie"-like suspense montages, and these in-the-dark pursuits of various rogue family members and out-and-out do-badders, lengthy set pieces mounted with great confidence by writer/director James DeMonaco, are practically harrowing. These don't-go-around-that-corner sequences explode in violence that almost achieves the level of genuine catharsis, and after that the movie has a few more shudder-worthy tricks up its sleeve. It all makes for a pretty relentless 85 minutes.
Yes, the socially conscious points are frequently on the nose, and the head villain played by Wakefield is so broad in his evil preppiness he'd likely be rejected by Bret Easton Ellis as too obvious. "The Purge," however, is the rare quasi-allegorical horror movie that actually maintains the courage of its convictions. And as such, it leaves a mark on the mind that doesn't immediately dissipate when one leaves the theater.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.