The Purge – A Review

The Purge makes a pretty good case for not having children; if it weren’t for the actions of the youngest members of the family, one can argue that the Sandins would have had a very different evening.

The new “horror” film tells the story of the not too distant future of the United States where unemployment and crime are at an all-time low. The nation has been reborn after a dark period of crisis and the New Founding Fathers of America have implemented an annual event called The Purge. One night a year, for a twelve hour period, all crime is legal; there are no emergency responders and citizens are free to steal, burn, rape and kill as much as their hearts desire during this time without any legal consequences. The New Founding Fathers see The Purge as a release valve on all the negative feelings that people have inside of them; one night of mayhem, they deduce, is enough to cleanse the soul for the rest of the year and creates a compliant and safer citizenry. It’s worth noting that anyone that is above a “Level 10” government official is excluded from the Purge and cannot be harmed, which is pretty convenient. Even in the future, politicians are looking out for themselves.

While not a participant in the annual mayhem, The Purge has proven very lucrative for James Sardin (Ethan Hawke) and his family; James sells security systems for those who want to protect themselves from invaders during the half-day of lawlessness. James, his wife Mary (Game of Thrones’ Lena Headey), their petulant teenage daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and their pre-adolescent son Charlie (Parenthood’s Max Burkholder) all settle in for the evening, feeling safe and secure in their armed residence and ready to ride out yet another Purge. Young Charlie struggles with moral ramifications of the night; a nervous child, he is unsettled by the night’s activities. So when a wounded man stumbles into their affluent neighborhood begging for help, Max briefly unarms the Sardin family home to provide this stranger shelter.

And that’s when sh*t got real.

The man, it turns out, was being hunted by a group of Purge enthusiasts, who are none too pleased that their target has been granted sanctuary. They demand that the Sardins release this man or they will make them all pay. Their affluent neighborhood – usually untouched by The Purge – is now the center of the action, as the Sardin family home is surrounded by psychopaths determined to take full advantage of the night of amnesty from the law and the unknown man with undetermined intentions is lurking somewhere within. Add into this some pointless nonsense involving their teenage daughter and this night is not going well for James and Mary. They must decide whether they are willing to turn over this man (assuming they can find him), knowing that he will be slaughtered, in order to guarantee their own safety.

The Purge is a film that has an interesting and original premise, but ultimately falls short when it comes to the execution (ha!). While there are some interesting questions raised by the movie, The Purge falls into the trap of becoming just another home invasion movie and one that isn’t all that scary at that. There are not nearly enough thrills in the film; while I understand the need to build tension and create a mood, too much time was spent waiting for something to happen. There are a few individual moments that are exciting, but in the end I left the theater disappointed.

The best thing going for The Purge is its premise and the ramifications of having one night a year when anything goes. The film raises some very interesting questions but mistakes asking the questions for actually contemplating and debating the questions. There are some unsettling socioeconomic and racial issues related to the Purge – the poor are unable to afford the protection that the rich can and are therefore more vulnerable (a fact, the film hints, that is actually behind the Purge – the desire to eliminate those that are a drain on the system); the stranger requesting help is a black man in a predominately white neighborhood – that the film initially raises, but they are quickly abandoned for a more by-the-numbers film. It’s too bad; I think they could have made a very exciting and scary movie that also wrestled with some of these complicated questions. I would have rather the film ignore these issues than simply ask them and move on.

The desire to not engage in these questions, however, could be easily forgiven if the movie was scarier or had more moments that made you jump. The Purge is, after all, at its heart a thriller – a genre not necessarily known for its deep philosophical debates. Here, the film is also lacking. I don’t think I jumped once during the entire film and while I am admittedly a tough nut to crack in that regard, there was just too much time waiting for something to happen. While the man in the house is a concern, the real peril is the freaks that linger outside and the film takes far too long to bring that conflict to the forefront. When things finally get rolling there are some good scenes, but not enough to carry the majority of the film that moves far too slowly. For a movie that is rated R and that deals with a night of government sanctioned murder, it felt restrained. They could have really gone for it, yet they seemed more content to play small ball with the action and pandemonium.

Some other thoughts:

  • Different setting and different hair color, but Lena Headey once again plays a mother that has no control over her kids. While Zoey and Charlie are no comparison for her Game of Thrones offspring Joffrey, they need to be reined in and start listening to their parents. You’d think on the one night a year that your parents could legally kill you, you’d drop the attitude for a bit and be on best behavior.
  • Between this movie and Sinister, Ethan Hawke has carved a little niche out for himself as the dad in these types of movies.
  • I’m much more forgiving of plot holes and poor character development in these types of movies, but The Purge is not immune from these shortcomings.
  • Ummm…’d think if one night a year murders were roaming the streets, people would maybe go spend some time at the shooting range to prepare.  Some of these people are terrible shots.
  • I went grocery shopping after I saw The Purge and I did find myself giving some side eye to some of my fellow shoppers as I strolled the aisles. And while during the movie I thought that some of the people running around murdering people were overreacting to slights, by the end of my shopping trip I was ready to Purge pretty much every other person I saw.
  • Perhaps it is because we said goodbye to our family pet this week (R.I.P. Wilson), but I found myself very concerned as to what happens to pets during the Purge. No animals were in danger in the film, but I wondered what people did with their pets during this time period. I guess animals would be fair game during that time – kids are apparently OK to murder as well – but that doesn’t seem right. I’d probably get myself killed trying to keep Pumpkin safe.
  • People wearing masks are never not creepy.
  • Based on the appearance of Max Burkholder, I am guessing that this film was filmed a while ago and has been sitting on the shelf; he’s much younger looking in this film than he was in the last season of Parenthood.
  • This film takes place in 2022, which is only 9 years in the future. The Purge depicted in the film isn’t the first Purge to occur, so things escalated pretty quickly if this is where our country will be in less than a decade.
  • Not to nitpick, but March 22 seems like a dumb day for the Purge. That might work in California, but here in upstate New York it is probably way too cold for many people to go out on a killing rampage. They should do it in the summer. I don’t care how murderous I was feeling, I’m not going out in a foot of snow.
  • The Purge reminded me of a hybrid two other films – The Strangers and Funny Games.
  • The security system that James works for might have the class action lawsuit on their hands – their system was pretty easy to defeat.

While The Purge has a compelling initial premise, it squanders that innovation in place of a more boring and predictable home invasion movie that fails to be unnerving or scary. I wish that they had done more with their original idea – either a deeper look at how the dystopian society came to be/currently operates or a real discussion of some of the issues raised – or had simply made the movie more exciting. By failing on both counts, The Purge was a mildly entertaining film that is ultimately forgettable. I found myself thinking about the logistics and ramifications of the idea of Purge far longer than I thought about the actual movie. The few moments of legitimate action and thrills are not enough to carry the film. For the most part, you’ve seen this film already, just with a different backdrop.

The Purge opened nationwide on Friday.

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