The year is 2022. In the United States, unemployment is less than 1% and crime is at it’s lowest rate ever. The reason for this is that the powers-that-be (known here as the New Founding Fathers) have passed an act called The Purge which allows anyone and everyone a 12-hour open period of letting out any sort of pent-up aggression in all sorts of violent acts without any sort of legal consequences.
Purge night is about to take place and our focus is on the Sandin family. The Sandins live in an affluent neighborhood with a house that’s a little bigger than the rest made that way because James Sandin (the father) sells home security systems that are designed to fortify homes for The Purge. James’ wife, Mary, is a typical housewife who just wants the best for her family. Their children, Charlie and Zoey, question aspects of The Purge. 7:00 rolls around and it’s now time for the Sandins to place their home into lockdown mode. Charlie sees a bloody stranger come near their house (through home security cameras), takes compassion on him and lets down the security system to take him in, much to the alarm of his parents. After they’ve taken the stranger in, a group of masked, privileged youth approach the house and threaten to tear it apart in order to get to their prey, vowing to kill the Sandins as well as long as they are in their way.
That’s the premise to The Purge from writer and director James DeMonaco, who prior to this has worked as a producer and writer on the Crash TV series as well as having written such films as the re-make of Assault on Precinct 13 and The Negotiator. It’s an utterly ridiculous concept, yet the same could be said for other science and speculative fiction works as well. The real trick here is how well do you sell it and still make it convincing and as it is, The Purge is very much a mixed bag, though to it’s credit, it certainly does spur some lively conversation after viewing it.
The concept itself one could basically see as government sanctioned national disaster that acts as a catharsis to it’s citizenry after the fact. But where it falls apart is that it’s assuming that all of the citizens are going to go about their business normally after the Purge takes place. During televised segments shown during the film, the question is put out there that The Purge is designed to eliminate the less desirable elements out of society (i.e. the homeless, criminals, the poor) and most of the film (at least for this setting) backs that up, especially after the Bloody Stranger and his pursuers are introduced, but to DeMonaco’s credit, he does manage to twist this a bit by the film’s end, but it’s still not enough to make up for some of the basic concept shortcomings.
This takes the assumption that everyone automatically “behaves” for the rest of the year, but obviously that wouldn’t be the case. As the rules of The Purge are explained right before it takes place (thanks to an Emergency Broadcast System message), all emergency services are suspended and only a certain level of weaponry is allowed to be used. That level of weaponry is pretty vague, though based off of what we see here it looks to be it’s highest form is guns. Crime is at it’s lowest rate, but considering human behavior, there would still have to be some high level stuff taking place, and one just has to wonder what is there going on in the world that takes care of that. What are the long-range consequences to The Purge? Do people plan for this? How do those that survive these acts then see their neighbors after the fact? These things are lightly touched on in the movie, but because DeMonaco has centered this around one well-to-do neighborhood, it becomes more of a diatribe against gun-control and social conservatives more than anything else. Is that his point? It’s really hard to say, especially after an event late in the film that shifts things around a bit. The final message could be just as simple as there are no quick and simple solutions to any problem, but based on how this story is told, it doesn’t come off quite that way. This concept is just really too big to be satisfying in your basic home invasion terror film.
Now I have to say though, for the most part, the home invasion aspect of the film is pretty well made, only falling apart in areas where characters just disappear for a time (this happens both with the Bloody Stranger- that’s how he’s known in the movie- and the daughter Zoey) only to reappear when the story calls for them to be relevant. The performances are pretty good. Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey play James and Mary Sandin and they’re certainly solid, as our the performances by Max Burkholder and Adelaide Kane who play Charlie and Zoey. Their work is good, they’re just hamstrung by a script that’s trying to do way too much within a very short time frame. Rhys Wakefield plays the Polite Stranger (that’s how it’s listed in the credits) who’s the leader of the mob who invades the Sandin home. It’s a terrifically creepy performance and puts me in the mind of the protagonists from Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. As good as this performance is though, it also leads to another of the film’s problems. This group that invades the Sandin home is masked and the only one who reveals himself is Wakefield’s character, the rest behave as this sort of hive-mind mob and none of the others have any sort of voice in the movie. It’s almost like he’s controlling a cult that has it’s own agenda and would this be something that would be allowed in this new world order? Again, another question that’s just too big for something that’s made as a home invasion thriller.
Technically, The Purge is certainly well-made, features some solid performances and some genuinely creepy moments. It is a ridiculous concept that will certainly leave some just laughing at it by it’s end and have others arguing it based on their own political leanings. That to me anyway is the film’s strongest aftereffect; the pure discussion that will come from it, though it doesn’t necessarily translate to a satisfying film experience. The Purge, in comparison to other summer films, is a low-budgeted film and so far has done very well for itself on it’s first weekend. That certainly leaves me to believe that a sequel could be in store- I’d actually embrace that idea if a potential sequel would look at this idea from an altogether different point of view and further flesh out it’s core concept.