As a friend recently noted, some of the latest dystopian films sound and awful lot like eating disorders. Featuring titles that set an appropriately uncomfortable tone, last year’s The Hunger Games and its forthcoming Thanksgiving sequel are now joined by The Purge, the chilling new vision from writer/director James DeMonaco. Though likewise set in a near future with an annual government-sponsored event intended to keep citizens in check, the similarities largely stop there as the latter aspires to greater social commentary and embraces the violence from which Gary Ross’ adaptation too often shies away. A film this gruesome where killing is the main attraction can only be so enjoyable, but for relaying a message through sheer terror, The Purge is an immense success.
The Purge effectively states its satirical intentions from the start with an unsettling opening credits montage. In it, “highlights” from past Purges (the yearly 12-hour period where all wrongdoing, including murder, is legal) are scored to Claude Debussy’s “Claire de Lune.” These doubly disturbing images then segue nicely to the supposed fruits of such cleansing, a pristine U.S. suburb in the year 2022 benefiting from a national 1% unemployment and practically non-existent crime. There, James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) basks in an estate made possible by sales of security systems for the sole purpose of staying safe that lone questionable night. Along with his wife Mary (Lena Headey), daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane), and son Charlie (Max Burkholder), he locks in for another hopefully uneventful Purge, but gets precisely the opposite.
Unconvinced of the whole “we’re better off” situation, Charlie hears a young black man (Edwin Hodge) screaming for help on their street, disarms the giant Panic Room, and lets the stranger inside. A band of masked and armed vigilantes soon follow, demanding the captive’s release or else everyone in the house dies. As their unnamed leader, Rhys Wakefield’s Joker smile and polite mannerisms make for an especially troubling adversary, and as their threat evolves into action, DeMonaco’s smart writing raises multiple tantalizing questions that aid in the film’s overall suspense. Are the cookies given to Mary by her uptight neighbor Grace (Arija Bareikis) poison? Is the refugee a mole? Is there a neighborhood conspiracy in which all involved are out to get the Sandins? Taking his time to solve each of these riddles, DeMonaco keeps the audience firmly in his palm, inducing squirms galore on his way to a fairly stunning finale.
In addition to government propaganda on television and themes of the Haves and Have Nots (don’t think 1% is an arbitrary number), the carnage and terror on display in The Purge hammer its messages home in breathless fashion. Along the way, however, things aren’t always smooth, including a truly dumb, random decision by Zoey’s boyfriend Henry (Tony Oller) that ultimately holds little significance and the mystery of why, other than to ramp up the creep factor, all but one of the Purgers wear masks as they face no repercussions for their actions. Even with an eye-rolling maternal declaration that would make Molly Weasley proud, in the moment these issues barely disrupt the film’s otherwise steady tension. At a brisk 85 minutes, it’s an intelligent, calculated thrill ride and a strong undertaking all around.
Rated R for strong disturbing violence and some language.
The Purge is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.