The horror genre has never seen a hot button topic it couldn't overlay with a metaphorical twist and a few jump scares. Consumerism, religious extremism, sexually transmitted diseases — you name it and it's been haunted by ghosts or slashed to bits.
Which brings us to "The Purge," a blunt takedown of 1%-er politics masquerading as a home invasion picture. Writer/director James DeMonaco constructs a world to serve his vicious sentiments on the current economic strife of America and it's bold, crass, and wonderfully ridiculous. The year is 2022, and the country's "new founding fathers" have instituted an annual celebration of malicious debauchery known as "The Purge." For one day, all crime is legal — a move that the government hopes will snowball a year's worth of anger into one swift release. It seems to work, lowering crime and unemployment rates dropping dramatically. The cost is rapid head growth of America's privileged rich. If they looked down upon the poor from their ivory tower before, now they get to scurry down from their perch once a year to hunt the homeless who dare creep by their gated community.
For a movie that wears its ideology around it like one of Liberace's boas, DeMonaco adeptly weaves the ten tons of exposition into the daily goings-on of a recognizable, nuclear family. Ethan Hawke stars as James Sandin, husband to spunky mom Mary (Lena Headey), father to the rebellious Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and socially awkward Charlie (Max Burkholder), and top salesman of the year for a high grade security systems conglomerate. With the Purge around the corner, James has made a financial killing — and doesn't mind flaunting it. His neighbors look in distaste at their McMansion's new addition and as James himself gleefully puts it, in only a few years, the Sandin family went from barely making rent to buying a boat. Life is great!
Oh, until that whole everyone-around-you-is-trying-to-kill-you thing. When sentimental Charlie opens the steel-clad doors of the Sandin home to an on-the-run stranger halfway through the night's festivities (The Purge is scheduled from 7 P.M. to 7 A.M. for maximum spookiness), all hell breaks loose. There's tension in the Sandins' problem: When a group of masked private school kids show up demanding the homeless veteran now safe inside their home, the family wrestles with giving him up to protect their own skin or harboring the runaway and facing the wrath of the elitist brat pack.
DeMonaco executes "The Purge" with little stylistic fanfare, a run and gun attitude with a pale blue wash to the nighttime interiors, but it's elevated by his hammy script that's primed and ready for actors to chew up. The group's ringleader Rhys Wakefield makes the skin crawl with Shakespearean level douchiness, but more surprising is Hawke's work. His performance convinces us this isn't an obvious decision, and DeMonaco capitalizes on the grey zone. For a good chunk of the film, "The Purge" twists conventions of the invasion thriller to make our heroes the ones doing the preying and torturing.
Eventually, DeMonaco settles back in to the movie we expect "The Purge" to be, a straightforward riff on the latter half of "Straw Dogs." There's gunplay, there's axe wielding, there's an especially riveting fight scene between Hawke and a few teenage fiends, but it pales in comparison to the moments when "The Purge" is not so much on the nose as clogged straight up it. Hearing an entitled child call for the head of a "dirty swine" is unsettling and provocative. Coming up with a variety of ways to slay the predators of "The Purge," not so much. Like many horror movies, DeMonaco's film first challenges violence only to succumb to the allure of fetishizing it for audience cheers. There's gold in the premise of "The Purge" and its dismissal of subtlety. But like the residents of its world, when given the opportunity, it drops restraint and goes for blood.
SCORE: 6.8 / 10