Horror has always been the go-to genre that, at its best, can pervert social commentary at lengths that leave you terrified and your mental state vulnerable. Sadly, The Purge dares to dream big, but comes out small when the filmmakers take on the 1%-ers and America’s economy through the lens of a home invasion thriller. But as high concept as The Purge may seem, the message here fails to scratch the surface level of the issues at hand.
The year is 2022. Around a decade prior, the United States underwent a change of government ruled by the New Founding Fathers, a mysterious group of political figures that are given no context whatsoever. With violence and poverty at an all time high, the nation was “reborn” with the establishment of The Purge, a 12-hour period on March 21 between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. – it has to be at night, this is a horror movie after all – where all crime, including murder, is legal. Of course there are stipulations. Weapons above a Class 4 are banned and government officials above a Level 10 grade are immune to harm – unfortunately the explanation of these levels are never explained. But since The Purge began, crime is near non-existent, the unemployment rate is at 1%, and the economy is booming. Society, must be doing just fine right?
Enter the Sandins, a white-collar family, living on the top of the world in their gated community with a brand new addition to their home. James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) sells security systems, specifically for The Purge, and one could say, business is good. In fact, James is the top salesman at his company. James’ wife Mary (Lena Headey) appears to be a loving stay at home mom, while their children, the mature and rebel daughter Zoe (Adelaide Kane) and the younger, smart and innocent Charlie (Max Burkholder), attend an upscale private school. Zoe is dating a boy out of high school, Henry (Tony Oller), whom James disapproves of, and Charlie expresses little faith in what The Purge offers to society. And that is as much as we learn about the Sandin family.
As the annual purge draws near, the Sandin family begin to lock down their not-so-humble mansion. And being a horror flick, the safe and quiet night they expected to have goes awry. Charlie – some how knowing the key code password to the security system – opens the doors for a stranger (Edwin Hodge) who he assumes is being hunted by those participating in The Purge. During the confusion, the Sandins are visited by a group of masked strangers led by a polite, yet very sadistic man (Rhys Wakefield) who asks for his prey to be handed over alive so they may carry on with their given right for the evening. In return, the strangers will spare the lives of the Sandins, but only if they cooperate.
The Sandins are in quite the predicament; one life for the safety of their family. And who’s to say that these strangers will make good on their word? Never having been in that sort of situation places a great moral tension on the viewer and sets the tone of how the night will be played out. Trust and perception is tested amongst the family and The Purge does a fine job at building conflict within James and Mary. But for the rest of the cast, they are merely shells of ideas that are never given reason behind their actions.
Charlie Sandin is the biggest offender to this film. I typically dislike kids in my horror movies because they have become habitually annoying, and Charlie takes the cake. His unmotivated actions cause a downward spiral of bad decisions made by the family that will have many extremely frustrated, demanding too much for the audience to accept. Not only will you feel the need to eliminate the Sandins for their stupidity, the masked strangers are asking for it too. The only motivation they provide to us is that they wish to purge the world of the weak and less fortunate to their own social level. Simple commentary expressed by one-dimensional villains.
As much as writer/director James DeMonaco tries to frame this alternative universe, The Purge never reaches the big picture. I full-heartedly love this concept, but the execution of the plot is handled so poorly the themes become lost within the chaos of the night. Little development is brought to life as to why The Purge is so easily accepted into society; we never hear from the other side or how this has affected the rest of the world. Thanks to a solid performance by Hawke, we do see an interesting balance of conscious placed on his character as he faces the choices he must face throughout the night.
Compared to other home invasion horrors such as The Strangers, Funny Games, and Inside, this film is rather weak in the scare department. All of the big moments of action are a few moments shy of great build up, but come unearned. Also, none of the kills or violence is that terrifying or thrilling – we get more from The Walking Dead than this. The cinematography does little to keep you in suspense and the score is ineffective to the tension.
In all honesty, this is the one horror movie I hope they create a sequel to so we can explore more of this twisted universe because with so much going for it, The Purge fails to be anything more than just a weak excuse to terrorize a wealthy family with freaky masks and big machetes. Anyone wishing that this film will have anything interesting to say will be let down by its lack of structure and complexity. And unfortunately, if you’re looking for a good summer horror you won’t find it here either.
The Purge was written and directed by James DeMonaco, with a run time of 85 minutes. This movie is rated R for strong disturbing violence and some language.