The best twists in The Twilight Zone weren't the ones that came at the end. The real genius of Rod Serling's classic series was how often and how effectively it twisted things up with simple but outlandish "What if?" queries in episode setups.
These skewed perspectives on the everyday fed into the splashy twists at the end, but they were also what so often kept the show from being a one-trick pony. What if your daily commute suddenly offered you an exit to a simpler place where you could escape your troubles? What if you found yourself alone and trapped in a town that looks familiar — in which everything is fake?
The Purge, the sophomore directorial effort from writer-director James DeMonaco, follows just such an initial template: What if, in the near future, the government was to set aside 12 hours out of every year where the law doesn't exist?
There's a rationale: In this scenario, crime has plummeted and unemployment is at 1 percent because — the government says — it has allowed people to "purge" their inner demons by indulging their baser natures for one night of the year. During that night, people may commit assaults, murders or any other crime they like without interference from police or emergency medical services, and without later prosecution, so that they can live happy, well-adjusted lives the rest of the year. It's like gestalt therapy with Berettas instead of bataka bats.
James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) is a man who has benefited greatly from The Purge: He sells home-security systems, and the nation's rich spend thousands of dollars making sure their houses are impenetrable fortresses. When it comes time for lockdown, the haves are shielded from any have-nots who might come knocking, while chaos reigns on the streets.
Of course, human weakness is the greatest vulnerability of any fortress, and through an unlikely confluence of emotion-driven miscalculations, the Sandins — James, his wife, Mary (Game of Thrones' Lena Headey), and their two teenage children — wind up with two unexpected guests in the house after lockdown, and an angry mob outside calling for one of them to be tossed back out.
The coincidences necessary to reach this state of affairs will require more suspension of disbelief than may be comfortable for even the most accommodating. Then again, so does that initial premise: DeMonaco, like Serling before him, is asking for buy-in on an unlikely-to-impossible world for his own allegorical purposes. If you're willing to swallow that first one, you might as well just keep going with it.
And it turns out there is an undercurrent of social commentary at work here. The director uses his premise to examine class warfare as a literal construct — and not just with the Sandins and their rich neighbors snug in their homes, hatches battened against the mayhem and the potential envious retribution of the poor. The rich in DeMonaco's film also go sport-hunting for the disadvantaged, the homeless, the defenseless. This is a most dangerous game, with the 1 percent going after the 99 with weapons far more immediately fatal than predatory lending. (Suddenly those low crime and unemployment statistics look a little different, no?)
But the film doesn't handle those elements so elegantly, often coming right out and articulating the issues via news broadcasts or on-the-nose conversations. One hurdle is that while The Twilight Zone was social commentary dressed up as horror, sci-fi or thrills, The Purge is mostly a genre picture trying to layer on some prestige by way of social commentary. The latter falls flat; the film is actually stronger when it just goes for our baser instincts.
And as a tense thriller, it works. The family has enough depth and moral complexity — some roiling internal conflict about profiteering on such a grim tradition will eventually emerge in James — for the stakes to be as high as necessary. Meanwhile the story's villains are suitably creepy, masked figures acting with the self-righteous fervor of psychopathic cultists.
Where the film departs from the traditions informing it is in favoring tense, violent action and horror set-pieces over its more cerebral elements. The standout scenes involve dark, nerve-jangling games of cat-and-mouse in the house, including a nicely choreographed siege in a fully decked-out rec room, where Hawke takes on a host of intruders armed mostly with his pool table and pinball machine.
If DeMonaco was aiming any higher than gut level with The Purge, then he has missed the mark. On the other hand, he has carved himself out an hour and a half in which maybe that's not a crime.