Purgation, according to Aristotle, is the function of drama, the release through catharsis of unhealthy feelings that would otherwise damage society. In a bit of self-reflexivity almost suggestive of writer’s block, The Purge, the new thriller starring Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey, takes this process as a high concept all its own.
Dateline: 2022. The U.S. has undergone some sort of friendly-fascist Christian-right takeover. Crime down, Dow Jones up! The “New Founding Fathers” set aside one night a year for The Purge, during which all crime is legal, and no emergency services are available. (In other words, “The Lottery” x Rumspringa ÷ The Cabin in the Woods + total literalism.) Hawke plays James Sandin, a man who has made a bundle selling lockdown security systems, but alarm bells sound when his tender-hearted son (Parenthood’s Max Burkholder) spies a homeless man (Edwin Hodge) being hunted, raises the Sandin Family Forcefield and lets him escape his pursuers.
The Purge is the sophomore outing for writer-director James DeMonaco, perhaps best known for scripting the 2005 remake of Assault on Precinct 13. The guy knows his way around the besieged-fortress plot, and as an exercise in thumb-screwing the new film is never less than compelling in its efficiency. (A remote-control surveillance robot is put to particularly good use.) But here’s a film that is so intellectually muddled, so uncertain about the direction (or the value, really) of its political allegory, that it is inevitably more interesting to argue with than it is to actually watch. It’s not just that plenty of elements in its basic set-up don’t make sense; I’m not a stickler for such things, if the movie is taking me somewhere emotionally or philosophically risky.
But The Purge is all about hedging its bets — wanting to provoke its audience one minute, then flatter it the next; fronting like a Hollywood cousin to Michael Haneke or Gaspar Noé, only to then treat violence as every bit as cathartic as the Purge Government’s patently compromised social psychologists claim it is on drive-time radio. Or, to put it bluntly: A film is really in trouble when we can’t tell whether it’s depicting its protagonists as blinkered racists, or whether its makers just didn’t even notice the racism.