Set in the year 2022, The Purge is a movie that depicts an America of the near future where unemployment and violent crime have virtually been eliminated… with one notable exception. On one night, every year, all crime is completely legal and citizens are free to act upon their basest and most violent instincts. By permitting this annual purge, the US Government has found that society functions without the violence and instability that existed prior to its implementation. The end result is the creation of a somewhat bland, somewhat fascistic culture that erupts into extreme violence during the one night every year and then returns to business as usual the following morning.
The film centers on the Sandin family, who live in an upscale suburban neighborhood where the homes have built in security systems that protect their owners during the annual purge. The security doors are activated on the night of the 2022 purge, but the Sandin’s young son sees a homeless man begging for help in the street outside their home and, feeling sympathy for his plight, lets him in. However, the people that have been chasing the homeless man show up at the Sandin’s door and make it clear that they are willing to do whatever it takes to claim their prey.
If the setup for this film sounds appealing to you, then you may just enjoy this movie. It’s full of violence, tension, dark humor, and suspense. However, if you are expecting a film that takes this premise and then builds any sort of a storyline from it, then you are likely to be disappointed. There is little separation between set up and execution in the movie. The film tells you that there is a future where crime has been eliminated except on this one very violent night. It then shows you an upscale family in an upscale neighborhood leading bland, uninteresting lives. Then the purge begins and the film becomes a straight up excuse for showering the screen with lots of gory violence and gunplay. That’s pretty much the whole movie!
I don’t know that I could say that The Purge is really a “bad” movie (though I certainly wouldn’t call it a particularly good one either). It seems reasonably well crafted and has some fantastic performances. Ethan Hawke is compelling as the father, James Sandin, who starts the film as a shallow career-obsessed businessman that is forced to come out of his shell when faced with the realities of the purge within his own home. Tony Oller gives a memorable performance as the psychopath, Henry, leading his gang of Halloween mask-wearing murderers as they hunt the homeless man that has taken refuge with the Sandins. The movie appears to be making some kind of statement about class and wealth (or maybe about the right to bear arms?), but if the filmmakers felt they had a real point to make it was lost on me.
The movie that The Purge is most reminiscent of is the 1965 Italian film The Tenth Victim. That film followed a similar premise, a future society where violent crime has largely been eliminated because of the existence of a game where people are given permits to “hunt” one another. However, The Tenth Victim took this premise and made it into a fun, over the top, 60s James Bond-style action/comedy/romance. The Purge, by contrast, is a very dark film that takes itself quite seriously. And there is where I find it most befuddling. It takes itself too seriously to be a fun action romp, but then it doesn’t seem to make any sort of real point either. There’s no appreciable take away or message, it’s too dark and serious to really be viewed for laughs, and there’s no attempt at taking the premise to use as a background for building a broader or more complex storyline. The end result was a film filled with violent imagery that left me wondering why I was sitting there watching it, and kept me wondering long after I’d already left the theater.