Director: James DeMonaco
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Lena Heady, Max Burkholder
Rating: 2 out of 5 billiard ball hits to the head. This movie is simultaneously trying too hard and yet somehow not trying hard enough: its premise was so promising but the execution fell short thanks to a crippling inability to maintain the very theme it hits you over the head with at the beginning, turning instead to dark-blue hues and long, boring home-invasion-style bouts of pointless violence.
This film starts off well enough– engaging and interesting, even down to the opening credits laid over surveillance footage of previous purges. This idea of a purge is so profoundly creepy– one night a year, all crime is legal, including murder– that you would have every right to expect the resulting film to amount to something truly scary. But already the cracks in the script make themselves known through the silly dialogue that only gets sillier, and therefore more distracting and disappointing as the intended drama mounts. This drama, by the way, would have been even more dramatic if the characters were written to be more likable.
Our protagonist family the Sandins, are a comfy bunch, spoiled in their rich white privilege. They support the purge because the patriarch, James, played by Ethan Hawke, makes a profit off of other similarly well-off yuppies by selling them state-of-the-art security systems intended to protect their pristine cul-de-sacs on purge night. Max Burkholder plays Charlie, the son who stupidly disarms their said security system to let an African-American wounded homeless man into their home, threatening the whole family’s pleasant little bubble of affluence.
So beyond the characters themselves, let’s go back to what I consider to be a too obvious theme that is then dropped completely in a way that makes the whole film’s philosophy seem purposeless and unimportant in the first place. The villains of the film (who realize their target is in the Sandin home) refer to the man as swine and filth who is ruining their society and in need of being taught a lesson for daring to fight back against these pompous one-night-only killers who want their right to purge themselves.
The swine/filth is black, as I mentioned, and it seems too on-the-nose for that to possibly be random but then again, once the true mayhem begins, race doesn’t even matter. The great science-fiction element about what good the purge is doing for the country in the year 2022 is dropped almost totally. The morals and ethics of James and Mary, the wife played by Lena Heady who is always awesome even when asked to say the most ridiculous of lines, are discussed between them but only with a whiny and uncomfortably ambivalent tone. They change their minds back and forth in frustratingly flip-flop fashion, about what their actions are doing to them and whether they should give the man over to his hunters or fight instead. There were too many moments, like these, for me which were annoying or boring or both, as they added no suspense or depth to something that should have been at least one of the two things, suspenseful and/or deep.
Then, when our purgers do make it in to the house, there is barely any dialogue at all. There are none of those perfect little dips that are inherent in most strictly home invasion movies, which allow us time to breath and wonder if someone is about to enter the room or climb in through the window. Instead, it’s just scene after scene of weirdly silent kills, each one following its own mini-formula– someone is about to kill someone else until, never mind/just kidding, someone just shot the first person from behind in an all too easy and predictable rescue attempt, so let us go to the next room and have that happen all over again a few more times.
Another thing I hated about the film was the way the purgers pull the power on our family as if that will either punish them for “harboring” the prey or, counter-intuitively in my opinion, prevent them from finding him as easily or quickly in their ridiculously large mansion. And let me add just a quick digression on that separate matter, if I may: the fact that James gets into an absurdly random shooting match with his daughter’s boyfriend and then exclaims that he has to go find her made me wonder how on earth one can lose their own kids in their own home, and yet it continued to happen here, making me wonder about the integrity of the Sandin house as a safe zone in the first place, especially now that there are masked madmen and women outside and their target hiding inside.
Lo and behold, James remarks that his security systems “look good” because this kind of thing doesn’t happen in his kind of neighborhood anyway and that they’re not meant for worst case scenarios. This made sense within the whole theme thing again; the wealthy family capitalizing on other wealthy family’s fears without really being able to help them at all, and without really caring one way or another as long as they can buy a boat with room for a car in it.
Anyway, back to the lack of electricity: the whole film from then until the end was shot in darkness, everything transpiring in a blue tint that made everything really hard to see, with lighting coming from flashlights and not really helping us all that much. That said, all we really missed, again, were lackluster kills and unimpressive attacks that wanted desperately to be scary but were laughable in their attempts, at best.
All I will say in terms of what could have, and did, redeem this movie, was a slight twist at the end. It made me feel only slightly better about the film up until that point, but the conclusion that followed this little shock quickly descended back into bleak and irritating meaninglessness, actually making me wish the film had simply chosen a side sooner– did this want to be a political/social satire about class and violence and race and every other hot button issue in our country? Or did it want to be an over-the-top home invasion flick? To me, it tried too hard with the former but abandoned it in favor of the latter but without fully committing to it enough to make it interesting or exciting or even a justifiable shift, and by shifting in this way, the film collapsed under its own dual goal and ended up succeeding at neither one of them, turning the whole thing into nothing more than a bumpy, bipolar and blundering journey towards basically nothing.