The Purge imagines an America nine years in the future, where on one night a year, all crime is legal.
Opening text states that since the government sanctioned this, the economy has flourished and crime has plummeted, with unemployment currently at one percent (the first eye roll of many in 85 minutes). It’s an absurd premise, but one that might’ve been intriguing as speculative fiction by Aldous Huxley or George Orwell, or even as the kind of outrageous, big-budget satire that studios used to let Paul Verhoeven direct. But without an Aldous, George or Paul at the keyboard or behind the camera, The Purge is just a rote and repetitive home invasion movie.
James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) is a security specialist who has profited greatly from the annual Purge, which for twelve hours suspends all law enforcement and emergency services. Class warfare becomes literal warfare.
If the rich aren’t partaking in the violence themselves – either in interest of some extreme gentrification, or in pursuit of sick, cathartic kicks – they’re battening down in their mansions to watch live feeds of the carnage unfolding outside. By exploiting the public’s fears of home invasion during the Purge, James has sold enough home security systems to afford a sizable addition to his already sprawling home. His wife Mary (Lena Headey), detects some resentment over this in their gated community, and their neighbors aren’t the only bitter ones – their teenaged kids have issues with them, too. The discerning viewer will have issues with the adults and the kids.
When Charlie (Max Burkholder) isn’t remote controlling his doll-headed, night-vision camera equipped robot around the house for no reason other than to foreshadow its later use, he challenges his parents’ morality. His older sister Zoey (Adelaide Kane), a schoolgirl with the uniform on to remind you, barely speaks to James over his forbidding her from dating an older boy (Tony Oller). Luckily for her, the security cameras fixed all over the property outside somehow don’t stop the punk from sneaking through her bedroom window. (Can we please get a moratorium on teenagers in movies sneaking in and out of bedroom windows? And also on siblings slinging food at each other at breakfast or dinner. That happens in this, too.)
There’s another flaw in this high-tech security system. When armed, a steel door slides down over the entryway just slowly enough for a homeless man (Edwin Hodge) running down the street from a band of masked Purgers to reach the house and roll in like Indiana Jones. Oh, and there’s actually another flaw. The steel door keeping these Purgers out has been designed to have bars, in case anyone wants to wrap them with chains attached to a Hummer or two.
Because the movie is aggressively dumb (including four or five moments when a Purger is about to claim a victim, only to be shot by someone standing out of frame), it’s difficult to invest enough to even be entertained, let alone be engaged intellectually by the attempts at political allegory.
It’s confounding that writer-director James DeMonaco decided to apply this concept to the framework of the home invasion movie. After all, do crazed killers in these movies usually fear the law? When civilians are the protagonists, don’t they tend to be the ones to defeat the villains, and not police? So why bother with the high concept hook, if the characters are confined to a situation where the major complication could just as easily be a secluded house and no cell service? Universal might as well have retrofitted the script to be for The Strangers 2, considering how little this movie does with a provocative premise.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, DeMonaco wrote 2005’s Assault on Precinct 13, which also starred Ethan Hawke. (Can we get a steel wall or four to keep these two apart? One that slams, please.) Like Lena Headey, Hawke does what he can to elevate the material, but he’s more often called upon to deliver varying volumes (whispering here, now screaming, whispering again) than he is to hit emotional notes. He fared far, far better in Sinister, his previous genre collaboration with producer Jason Blum.
Horror fans, be warned: it’s bit of a stretch to label this a horror movie, despite the marketing’s efforts to brand it as such. It’s more of a very loud and violent thriller with a little gore, with most of the action (and hell, most of the narrative) centered around gunplay. Unless you’re in the market for a less involving, much cheaper and more roomy Panic Room that’s flatly shot, staged and acted, don’t splurge on The Purge.