A brute, icy little shocker, “The Purge” is a thriller willing to engage blood as well as tension, with just a little politics. It’s ten years in the future, and the country’s on the upswing, with crime down and the economy bustling. It seems to all come down to a new world order that came after a non-specific economic meltdown: a set of “New Founding Fathers” have established “The Purge,” an annual saturnalia and revel of violence and murder. Overnight, the country shuts down and those in the streets run amok, visiting violence and murder on their countrymen. The dogma is suggestive rather than specific, working fine grubby dystopic premise of almost Abel Ferrara scale. Ethan Hawke plays a father of two, a teenage daughter and a young boy, who he keeps behind the walls of the nice house paid for by selling armor and alarm systems to his neighbors for the annual ritual. There’s no “in god we trust” in the gobbets of creed and canon the revelers spout. God is a word that’s missing, which at first you think of as canny cover by the filmmakers, including director James DeMonaco (writer of the “Assault on Precinct 13” remake) and co-producer Jason Blum (“Paranormal Activity,” “Insidious,” “The Reader”), but then it can also be thought that these new American revolutionaries are godless and dogmatic. What’s percolating here? We obviously ought to fear “a nation reborn” running without rules, without a sense of rule of law, out on the streets. Is it income inequality? The tension is jacked up when Hawke’s son lets a homeless veteran into their home, a black man condemned as a “dirty homeless pig” by a pack led by a prep-jacketed, toothy, floppy-haired blond. So, on the page, we have a mesh of “Night of the Living Dead,” with the black man, the soldier, the Other, in their midst, as well as the confined but endlessly volatile spaces of “Halloween” and “Assault on Precinct 13.” (There’s even a bit of John Carpenter’s vulnerable young women who quickly turn strong.) In Romero’s film, Vietnam was the not-so-quiet subtext, but in “The Purge,” many anxieties seethe, with an appeal likely to “both sides of the aisle,” as D.C. pundits like to say in their sweetly binary fashion. “The Purge” manages to have its ambiguity and its weaponry too, even as it engages such charged material. Even the finer word choices are keen, such as the incantation, “To purge as we are entitled…” The true “entitlement”: we, the people, are owed what our leaders have told us what we are owed. “The Purge” is a swooping ethical tick-tock, centered on a family ripe for bloodying. Which is the more vital statement? This, from those who purge, self-pityingly declaring, “I was a proud American. But not any more. This country has taken everything from me”? Or Hawke’s dad, who brings it down to this: “Don’t you touch my fucking kids.” There’s blood in the streets, but pumping in the brain, too. With Lena Headey, Adelaide Kane, Max Burkholder. 85m. (Ray Pride)
“The Purge” opens Friday.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published soon. Previews of the project are on Twitter and on Instagram as Ghost Signs Chicago. More photography on Instagram.