The Purge Is Good For at Least a Trilogy of Scholastic Originals

Here’s a category idea for bar trivia: Collect one-sentence plot summaries of young-adult novel series and R-rated horror films, and see who can distinguish which from which. The one where the kids kill each other for sport is approved by school districts for extra-credit reading, as is the one where the government forces extreme plastic surgery on everybody. But the YA crowd will have to sneak into theaters showing The Purge, even though it’s exactly the same kind of chilling, violent, moralizing what-if tale—just with characters who say “fuck” once in a while.

Oh, and the lead—here, Ethan Hawke—never has to try on dresses or choose between complementary hunks.

The Purge‘s hook would be good for at least a trilogy of Scholastic originals. A decade from now, the U.S. has mostly solved its crime, unemployment, and homeless problems with one Hunger Games-style tweak: On one night in March, it’s perfectly legal for Americans to kill anyone they want to. Experts on TV news overheard in the movie attest that the release offered by this “purge” keeps us from murdering each other the rest of the year. Others hem and haw over its trickle-down effect: With the wealthy locked down in their homes, it’s the poor who tend to die on purge night, often at the hands of gangs of “hunters” sporting Occupy-like masks and shouting things like “Die, homeless pig!” The movie disapproves of this behavior, of course, but lends it ugly credence in the implication that the economy is booming thanks to the elimination of what Paul Ryan would call “the takers.” Here at last is the inevitable crossover between Atlas Shrugged and Bumfights.

As always in YA, one sensitive kid figures out that all of society is evil or phonies or whatever. In this case it’s the excellent Max Burkholder, playing the son of Hawke’s James Sandin. Dad is a newly wealthy peddler of security systems; son is a likable inventor geek who has built a radio-controlled Roomba-like toy with a security cam on top, a device that gives you something to guess at during the film’s dull patches: How exactly will it pay off in the climax?

The family—Lena Headey is mom, and Adelaide Kane is the teen daughter whose plaid schoolgirl skirt the camera dutifully leers at—holes up behind dad’s elaborate security system to wait out purge night. After some misadventures, the son sees a black homeless man (Edwin Hodge) running down the street of their ritzy subdivision. The man is screaming “Help me!” Gunshots crack in the night. The kid, not up on his Ayn Rand, disables the security system and invites the man into the house. Think Guess Who’s Coming to Be a Button-Pushing Moral Quandary?

Soon, a lynch mob in animal masks and prep-school uniforms is banging on the door, demanding the homeless man be surrendered—or the family be killed. Writer-director James DeMonaco wrings this for some memorably tense scenes, especially in the second act, when the family is split over what to do while the homeless man hides in the house, uncertain whether he has been given sanctuary or is still being hunted.

Unfortunately, all this big-idea drama—whose life is worth more?—soon gives way to an inevitable home invasion. The film opens with faked surveillance footage of purge-night violence: the destitute savaged by the solvent. That’s meant to be upsetting. But after too many scenes of Hawke and Headey stalking around the house with flashlights, the climax is the close-quarters combat that’s supposed to be exciting, with Hawke dispatching more faceless adversaries than is justifiable in a film committed to reminding us of the horribleness of violence.

The movie demonstrates, with some urgency, that it’s a bad idea to allow heavily armed citizens to storm about their own neighborhoods, looking for people outside their demographics. But its rote action climax also suggests, maybe without even meaning to, that in the hands of the heroic all that firepower is a force for good. As in so many Hollywood spectacles, the message and medium are at hopeless odds: This plea for peacefulness must contain the only thing the studios are reliably adept at showing us anymore—dudes killing other dudes, kind of awesomely. Wayne LaPierre will hate the first hour but love the end.

Still, the set-up is arresting, the domestic scenes well observed and acted, and the payoffs involving that Roomba toy excellent. Also, a late-film twist isn’t a surprise, exactly, but it is delicious. Outside that dopey climax, the only thing tragic here is that it’s so rare for movies ostensibly engineered for adult audiences to aspire to the thematic complexity and daring of novels ostensibly for kids.


‘Imagine Me & You’

British rom-coms live and die by the charm of their patter. And though this lesbian-themed entry in the Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral category neatly accomplishes the genre’s other requirement, the ability to double as travelogue, its players are availed of precious little wit. The plot, which unfolds in dappled and dewy Primrose Hill, finds angelic Rachel (Piper Perabo) questioning her “perfect” marriage to successful broker Heck (Matthew Goode, the British Mark Ruffalo) after she locks desirous eyes with their hot wedding florist Luce (Lena Headey). To move things along, Heck’s cad pal (Darren Boyd) falls for Luce, occasioning more social contact with Rachel. The redundant meet-cute is extended further by dull jags involving Rachel’s precocious 8-year-old sister, her parents’ strained marriage, and Luce’s mother’s dating issues. Posh bores all (what passes for humor are things like stuffy mum exclaiming, “sweet shit in a bucket!”), the characters simply run their tedious mouths until the two women finally consummate their flirtation with a tasteful smooch in the flower shop stockroom. These being moral times for celluloid gays, there is no consideration of an affair. It’s got to be all or nothing.

Straining to adhere to treacly formula—in which any personal fallout surrounding love’s madness is milked for jokes then tidily resolved —the film creates a bizarro world where the only obstacles to the smooth transition from affluent hetero wifehood to affluent girl-girl bliss are a few stunned parental reactions that instantly melt into full-fledged support. Even mild-mannered Heck just basically says “heck.” But then, what does he care? He’s rich as folk. The goal here is to ensconce us in luxury as we imagine what our two foxes must be imagining doing to each other. But not only is there not enough panting to bunch any panties, this polite romp could use more of that other L-word: laughs. And it doesn’t help that the final song, “Happy Together,” to which the title alludes, only reminds anyone who saw Adaptation of a movie that had lots of ’em.


Lush hour

Norway and England, worlds apart, represent different states of mind in Aberdeen, Hans Petter Moland’s harsh but strangely lyrical drama of family and addiction. Stellan Skarsgard stars as Thomas, the long-lost, alcoholic father of Kaisa (Lena Headey), a stylish, irritable London-based lawyer with perpetually unkempt hair and a heavy coke habit. One morning her mother, Helen (Charlotte Rampling), phones from Scotland, asking her to find Thomas in some dumpy Oslo bar and bring him to Aberdeen. She says it’s because he’s ready for rehab; in fact, she’s dying and wants to reunite the two. But the 250-pound lush proves too much for Kaisa to handle; for help on the road, she turns to Clive (Ian Hart), a sweet-faced truck driver.

The near-perfect cast has talent to burn. Headey growls her way through a bitter role as Skarsgard sulks and mumbles and Hart does his best to charm her. Rampling gives a performance that’s both sharp and understated, but her character’s relation to her daughter remains a question mark. Moland cowrote the script, which relies a bit too often on forced dialogue and improbable changes in character. A falling-down-drunk father doesn’t need to ask his daughter, “What did I do wrong?” And too many lines are just plain predictable. (Mother to daughter re father: “You’re all he’s got.”)

Yet Aberdeen‘s images are ravishing. Moland and director of photography Philip Ogaard make the most of the long Nordic twilights and vast, lunar vistas, where reindeer suddenly appear on the icy blue horizon. They never use landscape for merely picturesque effects. Instead, Norway’s hallucinatory, edge-of-the-world beauty imbues the story with a woozy, alcoholic haze and a sense of the marginal spaces into which the messiest aspects of private life are shoved. In England’s green and pleasant land, Thomas seems even more of a loser, his untoward gestures and outsize appetites an affront to the middle-class ethos of reserve and dignity. In fact, this father-daughter couple are most comfortable at sea, where the oil rigs Thomas worked on years ago burn brightly in the night like luminous sprites, urging them into the swamps of remembrance.

Something lured Paul Cox down memory lane, but he should have stayed at home. Innocence, his new film, shot in Belgium and Australia, reminds us that past loves, like sleeping dogs, are best left alone. Andreas (Charles Tingwell), a retired organist and music teacher, loved Claire (Julia Blake) half a century ago in postwar Belgium. Suddenly, he writes her a letter, they’re reunited, and sparks fly, despite her 40-year marriage to John (Terry Norris).

In flashbacks, we see young Andreas and Claire making out on riverbanks and train platforms, but we never learn much about them. In the present, when not holding hands or reciting French poetry to each other, they’re spouting psychobabble. People say things like “Goodness never dies” and “It’s now that matters.” Norris, as the bruised husband, provides a salutary note of darkly comic rancor, and the film’s exploration of elderly sensuality is courageous. But it mostly proves that lovers in old age can be as cloying and narcissistic as they are in youth.


Twice Upon a Yesterday

Cringingly titled and lumpily assembled, this stew of Brit
romance and banal magical
realism is conceptually lame in
hot-diggity ways we haven’t seen since 1995’s Destiny Turns on the Radio. A philandering London bloke (Douglas Henshall) loses his girlfriend (Lena Headey) and then, thanks to the intervention of a mystical bartender
(Elizabeth McGovern, you read right) and two magical Spanish garbagemen, gets to relive a chunk of his life and try to set things straight. The fateful
appearance of new-girl-in-town Penelope Cruz tosses a wrench into his gears. Groundhog Day put this sort of fanciful sheep wash to rest some time ago, and spell-spinning junkyard workers only make what already seems tired seem infantile, too. Thankfully, the actors are energetic: Henshall is earnestly frantic and Headey is Irish-setter-puppy cute, but the movie is thieved by Cruz, for whom movie theft has become a career. (Do you
remember anything else from The Hi-Lo Country?) She needn’t do more than offhandedly
struggle with an oversized sweater to make the rest of the film instantly fade in the mind.