The Purge follows through upon an interesting (if not wholly original) premise that initially sparks intrigue followed almost immediately by a knee-jerk response: “That’s so stupid! That could never happen!” If that’s the attitude one holds before even watching the movie, then there’s probably no way you’d change your mind. Still, this movie might look like a shoddily-constructed piece of social propaganda, but it’s really a fairly solid home-invasion thriller that delivers appropriate comeuppance to every character involved — although the latter aspect of the movie is ultimately more satisfying than the premise itself.
The plot is relatively basic and involves our society in the near future (2022, to be precise) after taking very drastic measures to curb unemployment and societal unrest. According to various “experts” quoted on news networks at the beginning of the narrative, lawmakers were forced to cope with the not unlikely situation of a quadruple-dip recession and a stock market crash. The nebulous powers that be came up with a last-ditch effort in the form of an annual evening to “unleash the beast” within; that is, to provide citizens with a 12-hour window during which all crime — even murder, rape, and burglary — is perfectly legal. Supposedly, this “easy” fix has lowered the unemployment rate to 1% and all but eliminated violence in our society.
If one thinks about it too much, the idea seems perfectly ridiculous, but it’s easy to see how an economy would be stimulated by purge protection services as well as the necessary preparation and cleanup of the purges themselves. The very ugly side of the equation, of course, is that this system favors the only those rich enough to protect themselves. The government has put forth the explanation that the purge functions as a catharsis to release societal aggression within all of us, but the movie explicitly wonders whether the purge is merely about money and is truly geared towards eliminating the poor and defenseless, who are essentially a drain upon society’s resources. It sounds like a wishfully lofty premise for a film to execute, but it’s not carried out in a complex manner. Furthermore, describing this movie as an allegory would require that the film’s narrative presents both a literal and a symbolic meaning. Yet The Purge doesn’t mess around with a hidden message at all. Instead, we are bluntly handed everything in bold print. Allegory, no. Satire, sure.
The film opens with a series of purge feeds from recent years past (for instance, 2019 in Shawnee, Oklahoma). Once The Purge truly begins, the field of scope is narrowed to the crime of murder, and the film becomes the story of how the well-to-do Sandin family copes with a yearly purge gone very bad. James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) has carved out a very lucrative living by selling high-end, ultra-expensive home security systems. His complacent wife, Mary (Lena Headey), does not question why her family had such an amazing year that they were able to add a new wing onto their already outrageously luxurious home. Their daughter, Zoey (Adelaide Kane), finds the purge to be an annoyance; her greatest concern is that her dad doesn’t like her boyfriend. Their son, Charlie (Max Burkholder), is a very sensitive and brainy (robot-building) teenager who questions the entire “holiday” and is troubled by his family’s attitude towards legalized killing.
At this point in the movie, the parents are staunch believers in the efficacy of the tradition: “You don’t remember how bad it was, Charlie. The poverty, the crime. This night saved our country.” After making uncomfortable small talk at the dinner table, the family settles down into “lock down” mode to ride out the evening, but then Charlie makes the fateful decision to offer asylum to a nameless stranger (Edwin Hodge) when a band of rich-kid purgers, led by an also-nameless douche (Rhys Wakefield), targets him. The ghouls wear masks because the purge has become much like Halloween for a-holes, and the effect works to unsettle the family and the audience as well.
This social and political setting merely serves as the framework for what is essentially a tense and effective home-invasion story. From the moment the threat upon the Sandins’ home is made, the family quickly realizes that their sense of security was illusory and that their “99% safe” home, clearly, is not an impenetrable fortress. Much of the action takes place in the pale moonlight, and the ridiculousness of this family’s excess can be found in the mere fact that they are inept at locating the stowaway as demanded by the band of purgers. If and when they do find him, they must decide whether or not his life is worth saving for the sake of their own. Lots of violence and moderate bloodshed shall be had, and a suspense-filled ride takes place for about 45 minutes. There’s a satisfying little twist at the end too, and I was pleased to discover that my prediction of the ending was way off the mark.
Again, this film is very obvious and literal in its intent. Of course the stranger is black. Of course he’s homeless. Of course he’s a tag-wearing veteran. And of course he risked his life for our fair country, and this is how society thanks him — by labeling him as “a homeless pig” and, therefore, a worthy target for our lanky, James Spader-esque (from Pretty in Pink, natch) lead villain. Yet if you’re expecting this horror movie to make grand and eloquent statements about class warfare, violence, and the inherent evil of humans, you’re out of luck. However, if you’re looking for an admittedly preposterous yet convincingly acted and tensely drawn thriller, then purge away to your depraved heart’s content.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at Celebitchy.