Straw droogs

This ex­cit­ing thriller doesn’t re­ally sus­tain its pow­er­ful moral and po­lit­i­cal set-up, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - REVIEWS -

THE PURGE Di­rected by James DeMonaco. Star­ring Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Ade­laide Kane, Max Burkholder, Ed­win Hodge, Tony Oller, Tisha French 15A cert, gen eral re­lease, 85 min Truly orig­i­nal dystopian high con­cepts don’t come along that of­ten. We should, thus, savour a good one when we en­counter it. Lo­gan’s Run had such a thing. So did Planet of the Apes. The trick is to tweak the uni­verse in a man­ner that turns so­ci­ety in­side out, but still leaves enough fa­mil­iar traces to per­mit a satir­i­cal edge. All the best science fic­tion is, af­ter all, re­ally about the uni­verse in which we cur­rently live.

The Purge’s cen­tral con­ceit cer­tainly meets all the above qual­i­fi­ca­tions. The film doesn’t al­ways make so­cial, psy­cho­log­i­cal or eco­nomic sense. But its un­for­giv­ing take on man’s nat­u­ral ag­gres­sive in­stincts adds real men­ace to a thriller that might oth­er­wise have come across as throw­away pulp.

Fore­run­ners for this in­vented Amer­ica – in which the state sanc­tions ex­treme recre­ational vi­o­lence – in­clude those in Death Race 2000 and Roller­ball. Here, how­ever, all so­ci­ety is in­vited along to the fes­ti­val of evis­cer­a­tion.

James DeMonaco’s film sup­poses a coun­try in which, for one night a year, all crimes are le­gal. Oth­er­wise de­cent cit­i­zens grab weapons and set out to an­ni­hi­late their en­e­mies, ran­domly butcher passersby, or en­gage in out­breaks of so­cial cleans­ing. At sun up, all nor­mal­ity re­turns.

DeMonaco can’t quite sell the dark­est cod­i­cil of his very dark premise: the no­tion that such a “purge” would some­how lead to neg­li­gi­ble un­em­ploy­ment, al­most nonex­is­tent crime (aside from that one night) and an over­all warm Eisen­hower-era com­pla­cency.

The state ar­gues that this har­mony is a re­sult of the psy­cho­log­i­cal bal­ance that the purge in­stils. As the film pro­gresses, how­ever, it be­comes clear that other fac­tors may be at play: while the rich shel­ter in ex­pen­sive gated com­mu­ni­ties, the poor are killed in dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­bers. Marx­ists might point out that the cap­i­tal­ist ma­chine re­quires an un­der­class to func­tion with its cus­tom­ary ruth­less ef­fi­ciency.

Any­way, James (Ethan Hawke) has prof­ited from the in­no­va­tions more than most. Sales­man for a se­cu­rity com­pany, James has equipped all his neigh­bours with the shut­ters, alarms and locks re­quired to sur­vive pledge night un­harmed. But he hasn’t counted on an in­con­ve­nient fact: his young son – still naive enough to em­brace com­pas­sion – re­fuses to buy into the new amoral phi­los­o­phy.

When a home­less man, drenched in blood, turns up at the door, the boy de­ac­ti­vates the gates and lets him in. Soon James and his wife (Lena Headey) are caught up in a moral dilemma. A gang of mid­dle­class droogs ar­rive and, not­ing that James’s se­cu­rity will never stand up to massed as­sault, de­mand that the man be re­leased. Does the fam­ily re­tain any trace of hu­man­is­tic moral­ity?

The film hints at a num­ber of fas­ci­nat­ing moral quan­daries. All mod­ern democ­ra­cies re­quire their cit­i­zens to ac­cept out­rages (drone strikes, abat­toirs, in­sti­tu­tion­alised poverty) as the price for main­tain­ing com­fort­able mid­dle-class lives. In DeMonaco’s film, how­ever, the great­est moral com­pro­mise is made un­avoid­ably ex­plicit. The pic­ture also asks us to won­der to what ex­tent we al­low the state to define ethics. If the govern­ment says it’s okay to mur­der, then it must be. Right?

Un­for­tu­nately, those ques­tions are nudged into the back­ground as the film drifts into a su­pe­rior hou­se­in­va­sion thriller. For long sec­tions of the sec­ond half, that high con­cept be­comes largely ir­rel­e­vant. It’s just a film about a mid­dle-class fam­ily bat­tling with sav­age ma­raud­ers.

So, The Purge is, ul­ti­mately, some­thing of a missed op­por­tu­nity. The ac­tors are all top-notch and DeMonaco or­ches­trates the murky ac­tion with great skill. But one longs to get out­side the house and ab­sorb the wider con­se­quences of this plunge into state-sanc­tioned may­hem.

There is a great film burst­ing to get out of this per­fectly fine one.

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