Human sacrifice is a reliable crowd pleaser from the myth of the Minotaur to Shirley Jackson s short story shocker The Lottery the Japanese film Battle Royale the book (and now movie series) The Hunger Games and the television reality show The Voice. This week s big screen oblation The Purge revisits that old sacral feeling updates it with agitated camerawork and seasons it with the vaguest suggestion of politics and then lets it rip with machine guns machetes and Manson Family style gigglers in fright masks. Ain t we got fun
For most of its first hour The Purge isn t exactly an evening s elevating entertainment but it effectively creeps under the skin. It s 2022 and James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) a high performing employee at a security firm is rolling through the entrance of his gated community in a fine mood. He has just been anointed his company s top salesman good news tempered by the fact that tonight brings the annual Purge the 12 hour national holiday during which Americans are legally absolved from every crime including homicide and presumably insider trading. Since some crimes are more spectacular than others more ready made for big screen consumption this yearly national bloodletting appears limited to more familiar more obvious police blotter offenses murder beatings more murder.
The time stamp announces that this is the future that it s also a dystopia is evident from the regressive image of James s wife Mary (Lena Headey) fussing about in a skirt and heels like a 1950s television handmaid. James meanwhile plays the caring father sitting down to supper with his family (dinner and then the show) in a scene with his children Charlie (Max Burkholder) and Zoey (Adelaide Kane) that establishes his loving paterfamilias bona fides. There s a distinct daddy knows best whiff to this tableau that s underscored when a TV announcer bleats about the New Founding Fathers God and America just before the Emergency Broadcast System kicks in. James mans the alarms and the gates roll down securing the windows and doors as if home were a prison.
That s the unsubtle message or rather just one of several such blunt bludgeoning ideas that the writer and director James DeMonaco tucks into The Purge. Some introductory text suggests the political stakes however blurred unemployment is at 1 percent crime is nearly nonexistent and it s Morning in America (again) cue the smiling faces fluttering flags and some pacifying notes from Debussy s Clair de Lune. The movie doesn t directly point fingers at political conservatives but Mr. DeMonaco deploys the satire about God n Guns with such cumulative heavy handedness that the target so to speak becomes obvious. (The emblem of the New Founding Fathers looks a lot like one for the National Rifle Association complete with a gun toting eagle.)
The message just gets louder and louder cruder and cruder which is too bad because Mr. DeMonaco knows how to set a stage. The banality of James and Mary s milieu initially brings to mind the opening of Jackson s Lottery (1948) in which the ritual bloodletting (ostensibly for harvest) is compared to civic activities like square dances the teenage club the Halloween program.
Once lockdown commences however Mr. DeMonaco quickly loses his grip on the ever more blood slicked material. Out come the guns and in come the villains inner and outer. A symbol of collective callousness emerges in the form of a sacrificial black man (Edwin Hodge as the Bloody Stranger) an Everyman lifted wholesale from George A. Romero s Night of the Living Dead if without the powerhouse effect.
The Purge is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Wholesale slaughter.
Opens on Friday nationwide.
Written and directed by James DeMonaco director of photography Jacques Jouffret edited by Peter Gvozdas music by Nathan Whitehead production design by Melanie Paizis Jones costumes by Lisa Norcia produced by Jason Blum S bastien K. Lemercier Andrew Form Brad Fuller and Michael Bay released by Universal Pictures. Running time 1 hour 25 minutes.
WITH Ethan Hawke (James Sandin) Lena Headey (Mary Sandin) Adelaide Kane (Zoey Sandin) Max Burkholder (Charlie Sandin) and Edwin Hodge (Bloody Stranger).