The Purge introduces us to an America reborn and free from the grip of unemployment and poverty. The nation prospers and the less fortunate are nonexistent. How did this happen? Well, the federal government has elected to set aside one night out of the year wherein all crime is legal. It’s dubbed “The Purge.” The wealthy and elite apparently take that as an opportunity to clean out the country’s homeless shelters and ghettos, and thus the low unemployment statistics.
Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey star as heads of the Sandin household, a well-off family enjoying the new American dream. They have two kids, a giant house, and they’re thinking about buying a yacht. They’re the envy of their neighborhood, and they’ve earned that envy because the family patriarch has generated a fortune by selling high-end security systems designed specifically to deal with Purge night.
Needless to say, many people want the poor Sandins dead, so they justifiably lock themselves down inside their own house when Purge night arrives. However, things take a turn for the worse when a homeless veteran, covered in blood, arrives in the neighborhood and begins screaming for help. Charlie Sandin (Max Burkholder) turns off the security system and lets the man into their home, earning the attention of the pack of blue-blooded sociopaths chasing after the vet. The group’s leader (Rhys Wakefield) gives the Sandins an ultimatum: Turn over the fugitive or else the entire family dies.
I like the high-concept for The Purge. It gives off a sort of retro 1960’s television vibe; this is easily a story that could have been depicted on an episode of The Twilight Zone. Hell, maybe it was. Yes, the idea of a yearly purge is extremely impractical if not outright impossible, but that’s not the point. The filmmakers are certainly aware that something like Purge night could never exist in any civilized country. The high-concept here is just an excuse to put a seemingly ordinary family in a situation where Thomas Hobbes’ social contract has been obliterated.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers fail to explore that idea. We’re given a movie about a family who profits from the Purge, and over the course of a single night, they learn that wiping your ass with the the social contract that binds humanity together may be a bad thing. And how do they learn that simple lesson? Because the dilemma they face is whether to turn over a black, homeless soldier to a preening psychopath who looks and acts like a Goldman Sachs exec.
The problem with The Purge is that it is didactic and simplistic. Other than the extreme minority of the population that actually qualifies as psychopathic, we know that murdering strangers is wrong. We don’t need laws or religion to tell us that, either. Human beings are social creatures; the drive to create and function within a society is ingrained in our DNA. It’s what’s allowed us to survive and evolve as a species. We certainly don’t need a movie to tell us that a night of wanton mayhem and destruction has negative moral implications.
A more interesting approach would have been to force the family into a situation where a government sanctioned lynch mob would be a little less repugnant. Instead of a sinless hero, what if our protagonists had to deal with the dilemma of sheltering an accused child molester or a suspected terrorist? In either situation, the motivation of the mob wouldn’t be explicitly evil. Our protagonists would be forced to make a decision within a moral gray area, and that would make things considerably more interesting.
There are myriad interesting ways the high-concept of this movie could have been exploited. Instead, we’re left with a watered-down version of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. The movie’s only two messages appear to be: Purge night is bad and the only thing holding the wealthy back from destroying the poor is the criminal justice system. The first message, again, is a given. The movie’s second message is nonsensical.
The criminal justice system doesn’t hold the wealthy and elite back from tormenting and screwing over the less fortunate. They already have their equivalent of Purge night: It’s called every day of the fucking week. The criminal justice system protects the elite from us, not the other way around. In the real world, the obnoxious yuppie villains of this flick would cower behind steel-reinforced doors while hoards of envious of have-nots laid siege to them. Again, the filmmakers have wasted a great premise by simply not thinking it through.
The high-concept is fine, the cast is excellent, and James DeMonaco’s direction is a cut above typical horror fare. The Purge fails because its ideas are half-baked. Maybe one day someone will revisit this high-concept and give it the treatment it deserves.