‘The Purge’ isn’t scary, but it is scarily smart

Masked psychos try to invade a home in the surprisingly not stupid "The Purge." Credit: Universal Pictures
Masked psychos try to invade a home in the surprisingly not stupid “The Purge.”
Credit: Universal Pictures

‘The Purge’
Director:
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

The scariest new movie in release now stars Ethan Hawke: he and the woman he met 20 years ago have a nasty couples fight that may or may not end with them splitting up. Most movies aren’t actually scary, and the ones that are, like “Before Midnight,” tend to focus on unpleasant truths most people would rather not acknowledge. They aren’t, in other words, horror movies. To wit, the other new film with Ethan Hawke, “The Purge,” isn’t scary. But it is tense, nerve-wracking and, most shocking of all, a lot smarter than it looks, or indeed ever had to be.

The premise is questionable: It’s 2022, and America is an unspecified number of years into a program wherein every March, for 12 hours, most crime is legal, including murder. This, a Johns Hopkins expert crows on TV, allows people to get rid of their violent urges by briefly giving in to them.

There are a number of holes in this logic, not worth eating up review space. But it’s a good setup for a “Straw Dogs”-like thriller. Hawke plays against type as a cocksure salesman who settles in for the “holiday” by locking up his family behind armor in their fabulous house. When his young, reliably foolish son lets in a homeless veteran on the run from a gang that has already wounded him, his family finds themselves having to decide: give the stranger to a mob of young psycho richies in blazers, or wait until they break in with reinforcements.

Though its characters often aren’t, “The Purge” is weirdly intelligent, both in how seriously and thoughtfully it handles its questionable premise and in how it explores audience bloodlust. Once Hawke and fam (including wife Lena Headey, no stranger to violence as Cersei Lannister on “Game of Thrones”) pick up weapons and go Dustin Hoffman on their intruders, the film reminds us that violent movies are an example of our society’s own form of purging.

In fact, the most thrilling aspect of the film isn’t the threat of invasion. It’s how it constantly seems like it will take a turn for the stupid, then finds a way to be smart. This is a cynical film, which believes that most suburbanites, if allowed, would enjoy taking a life. But it’s otherwise levelheaded. It even strongly suggests that the annual purge, which we’re told has almost eradicated crime and unemployment, may “work” only because the wealthy are killing off the poor and needy. That “The Purge” keeps its head right till the end is scary in itself.


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