CINEMA: A History Of Violence

THE PURGE (2013, directed by James DeMonaco, 85 minutes, U.S.)

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC You have to admire a sharp little thriller that really puts an audience through its paces as effectively as the new Michael Bay-produced thriller The Purge does.  Clocking in at a no-nonsense 85 minutes, the film doesn’t waste a lot of time establishing logic but nonetheless it had the audience screaming and cheering Thursday night at its first official screenings.  A deceptively intimate affair, this brutal little satire peeks at the bigger issue of a world driven mad by cathartic violence but focuses mainly on one man’s attempt to keep his family safe from murderous marauders loose in their awfully porous mansion bunker.

The scenario has the concise beauty of a Twilight Zone episode: an NRA-type of group has re-founded America as a peaceful, near violence-free state.  The citizens’ need for violence is sated by “The Purge,”  a 12 hour period one day a year when people can kill whomever they want (exception given to the political class) without prosecution.  James (a solid Ethan Hawke) has gotten rich selling first-rate security systems to his neighbors and is prepared to sit out the event safely at home with his wife Mary (Game of Throne‘s Lena Headey) and their two kids.  However, the security system’s hidden weaknesses are the people inside the house, as the teen daughter’s boyfriend is hiding on the grounds and James’ empathetic young son breaches protocol to open the door for a homeless man (Edwin Hodge) who is apparently being stalked by a mob.  The blood-thirsty cretins finally arrive and demand the homeless man be handed over for execution or else they’ll kill James’ entire family.  With his kids looking on, James and Mary have to decide whether they’ll join in the ugly business of The Purge or defend themselves against it.

Director James DeMonaco has more of a record as a producer but he does a nice job of laying a political subtext into the story without overwhelming it. Much of the info about the world this family lives in is provided by newscasts that don’t just report the events happening nationwide  during The Purge but also underline the importance of citizens “believing” in The Purge as the answer to social unrest.  “If you kids could remember how bad things were before” James tells his skeptical children.

When the lynch mob arrives on their doorstep, most wearing masks that resemble the anarchist “Guy Fawkes,” they represent themselves as well-educated boarding school types who have the birthright to kill “homeless scum.”   It’s tempting to view the national project of The Purge as a parallel our militarized foreign policy,  providing cathartic violence that is meant to reassure us of our safety yet creates more trouble than it  thwarts.

With a little more nuance, The Purge might have risen to the status of minor classic but its bothersome lapses in logic (is a top-flight home security system really this flimsy?) are washed away by the irresistible final act where the masked mob lays siege to the family in their home.  I’m surprised the home invasion thriller isn’t a more established genre, from Night of the Living Dead, to Straw Dogs and Panic Room, the idea of your very home under attack seems to get right to the primal dread within all of us.  The film may ultimately make a statement against the use of violence but it is when James vanquishes his intruders with violent means that the audience erupted in in own cathartic exclamations of “Yes!”  The Purge wants to tell us the violence isn’t the answer, except when you want to entertain a nerve-wracked audience.