There are plenty of films out there that envision a utopia, or something realizing a nearly optimal society. In James DeMonaco’s nail-biter the family of a well-to-do security consultant (Ethan Hawke) are terrorized in this highly fictitious home invasion thriller. But this isn’t about some random act of terrifying gratuitous violence like The Strangers (to which The Purge will easily be compared)… no, it’s part of a much larger world – the above mentioned utopia. In the year 2022 America is as close to perfection as possible, unemployment is at 1% and the USA is a nation reborn, thanks to an annual event called “The Purge.”
In a society, or more immediately a well-off community, where thanks to a government sanctioned murderfest, James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) makes a handsome living providing home security tech/hardware to those who can afford it so they may survive the annual “Purge.” But when the country and even your own neighbors go bloodthirsty one day every year, security is not an option – it’s a necessity, and you’ll need more than ADT and iron bars; The Purge calls for military grade barricades and James Bond level tech. Again this type of safety comes at a price and there are those who are a little envious of Sandin’s personal protection. But that’s only part of the story. The Purge pits the Sandin family against a group of well-bred youngsters who have tracked their prey for the evening (a homeless person) to the Sandin’s front door and as James’ son has let the man in, the pursuers will stop at nothing, not the barricades, not the Sandins or their currently discarded morals, to get to their prey.
For a film that feels very been there, done that, The Purge does more than a few things right. First off is that DeMonaco, in only his second directorial effort, strips the story down to bare essentials and the swift runtime sits comfortably between too short and just long enough. It also gets under our skin by putting fear in what is supposed to be the safest place in the world – your home. It goes a long way to show that no place is safe, not even a well guarded house at the corner of Highbrow street, right in the middle of Anywhereville USA.
From the very start The Purge is an unsettling affair where everything is like something out of The Twilight Zone. There are attempts at normalcy but at the edges of every neighbor’s well-mannered demeanor lies aggression and distemper and there are more than a few unhinged people so close to the breaking point. So while people may be courteous and gracious, “The Purge” lets people get their anger out just one day a year with absolutely zero consequences. Survival of the fittest or something like that. In the introduction we see nearly two dozen accounts, archival footage, from past Purges as this controversial new national pastime is broadcast to every home in America. Even for a movie, The Purge “raw feed” footage looks scarily real. But things only get worse and more intense.
Heading up this Ivy League hunting party on the steps of the Sandin household is the ruthless ringleader Henry (played by Tony Oller). His character is like if Jay from Clerks and The Joker had a baby, only scarier and more disturbing. He’s also one of the most chilling and creepiest unwanted house guests since Michael Pitt in Funny Games. DeMonaco’s film has a bizarrely tangible look into a hypothetical future, but bypasses things like motivation of anyone outside the Sandin home, making it all feel very one-dimensional. Further, The Purge asks us to accept this future with little detail save for the breezy intro. Were this story a little longer we could have seen more Purge attacks play out or offered more back story that is missing to be fully explored.
There are a lot of unanswered questions (well, not even proposed is more like it), like where did 7% of the currently 8% unemployed go? Were they killed? Obviously, but what’s the breakdown? Or do all the recently unemployed now make security hardware/tech/armor for a nation that gets stronger by weeding out or culling regularly? There must be a big demand for aggressively lethal toys and weapons or, on a contract basis, emergency clean up following The Purge, right? But that’s possibly overlooked in this small scale story. Also, it’s just a movie, which eliminates the reason why in addition to a future where there is no crime there’s apparently no carbs at dinner either.
Still, in the future there are the poor and there are the rich; the former is constantly at risk while the latter can afford the safety to hide during “The Purge.” Also it’s tough to consider it like “getting rid of the bad eggs” in this hypothetical story because some victims aren’t bad, just defenseless, which makes this a tough film to watch. To give the slightest bit of depth we hear these little soundbites and radio blurbs, as the story plays out, either debating The Purge or the news attempting to criticize it. The Purge claims to eradicate the non-functioning members of society, but it’s not just criminals who suffer, it’s the weak, sick, homeless or lesser off who just can’t defend themselves. To make this more interesting this could have taken place on a prison or setting that would have been more interesting or asked more of us an audience (kind of like The Dark Knight did with the ferry scene). But simple things like who are the New Founding Fathers? The story just never goes that deep.
The Purge mostly fires on all cylinders and though it takes a long time to get out of second gear when The Purge floors it, it goes full throttle to the very end. DeMonaco must have learned some things since writing The Negotiator and the remake of Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13because this one-room thriller is layered with legitimate scares and tension. There are only so many rooms and corners in a house so as trite as the reveals of someone lurking in the shadows, sometimes old tricks are the best tricks. For a cut and dry 85 minute story (that’s with the credits) The Purge has a slightly complicated plot and it’s less about jump scares and violence and more about morality. Basically it poses the question: Just because you can do something, should you do it and better, what gives you the right? The Purge works as a thriller and a hypothetical that while it’l never qualify as thesis material it certainly gets you asking yourself “What would you do to protect yourself or your family in the same situation?”