The Purge (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
It is 2022 and for twelve hours beginning seven o’clock at night on March 21st, all crime, including murder, is legal. With the exception of ten high-ranking government officials, everyone is free game to be killed. The government allows The Annual Purge because it is believed that this event helps to eliminate people’s rage and frustration which in turn minimizes crime and unemployment rates.
It pays to be rich and to live in a nice neighborhood. If one can afford various defenses and one is away from the violent hotspots, it is likely one will last through the night. The Sandin family, led by James (Ethan Hawke) and Mary (Lena Headey), are ready for the yearly overnight lockdown. Zoey (Adelaide Kane) retreats to her room and Charlie (Max Burkholder) stares at the screens which monitor the outside of their home. When a black homeless man (Edwin Hodge) who is covered in blood begs for help, Charlie races to let him in. Soon, a gang of college students (led by Rhys Wakefield, very creepy) approach the front door demanding that the “homeless swine” be handed to them. Failure to do so will force them to break inside and kill everyone.
With such an exciting and original premise, most of us will be inclined to expect a lot from “The Purge,” written and directed by James DeMonaco. While the picture is able to deliver on the level of a home-invasion thriller, it is somewhat disappointing that it is not able to rise above the sub-genre and really hone in on the subject of violence on a societal scope through this one specific family. The latter is important because the film spends a chunk of its exposition showing us the media and the reality of a future that has confused correlation with causation on moral and scientific arenas.
The anticipation is executed in a concrete way. There is a lot of silence between empty conversations, like one that takes place at the dinner table, as the family’s collective fear is swept underneath the carpet rather than discussed head-on. I liked that the screenplay does not spell out everything for us. We can just feel that this family is cold toward another, from the husband and wife being a beat away from wanting to reach out and talk about what is on their minds to the family members being consistently scattered around the house when they ought to be united in purpose and space.
When the lights go out, the slow burn of looking around various rooms and sinister corners is pedestrian at times. While I was in the moment and feeling very concerned for the family’s safety, typical thriller elements eventually pile on top of one another. The more it tries to make us jump out of our seats, the more it wanes in originality. When the third act comes around as guns, machetes, and billiard balls are used to attack, disarm, and kill, it is clear that we are no longer interested in the film’s premise. Instead, the attention is on the entertainment value. I was entertained… but is it right that we should be? One can argue that since the material has focused on and has elevated the rush of violence, it has ended up contradicting its thesis.
“The Purge” is a parable, an interesting one because it holds current relevance, so it must be evaluated on two levels. First, as a film of its genre, a thriller, which I think it succeeds to a degree. It does offer a few heart-pounding sequences. Second, as a film with a message to convey, the level of focus it commands in terms of assessing people’s inherent need for violence and what it means for that yearning to be wrapped in chains for the majority of the year. This is where it is lacking. Perhaps a complete overhaul of the third act might have been a good idea.