In a fictional near future, the government has created a night where all crime is legal, including murder. Called “The Purge”, it’s a release valve for people’s rage and way to violently cleanse the country of those who can’t protect themselves. A night where literally “Only the strong survive”.
When the tables turn on a family that’s benefitted from the policy, the result is a home invasion horror movie with a heavy dose of political commentary.
James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) is a successful home security system salesman. On the night of the annual “Purge”, he, his wife (Lena Headey) and his two children (Max Burkholder and Adelaide Kane) settle in, raise the shields over the doors and windows, and prepare to wait out the night.
The Purge is an officially sanctioned night of lawlessness. All crime is legal, including murder. Ostensibly, this is done in order to allow citizens to “blow off steam”, so to speak, and release the pent-up rage and frustration they carry inside of them. The reality is, however, that the rich can afford to protect themselves, while the poor become prey. The night turns out to be a violent social housecleaning where those unable to fend for themselves are weeded out, and off of the government’s teat. The night of violence results in economic boon for the country the rest of the year, but once a year, every Purge night, the price must be paid in blood.
This particular Purge, the Sandin family isn’t as safe as they think. When the young son sees a man (Edwin Hodge) pleading for his life out on their street, he disarms the family home’s system and gives the stranger asylum. Unfortunately, the man was the target of a pack of wealthy young people (led by Rhys Wakefield) who had picked him out as their Purge night entertainment. The group tracks the man to their house, and demands that the Sandins turn the man over, or become part of their Purge night celebration themselves.
Prior to seeing “The Purge”, I had suspected that the high level concept would be paid brief lip-service simply in order to set up a standard home invasion movie. The home invasion element isn’t anything special, it’s true, but the Purge concept is actually developed relatively well. As far-fetched as it might be in terms of realistic, effective social policy, “The Purge” envisions a world where such a night exists and then carries it all the way through. As such, there’s actually a relatively interesting socio-economic framework underlying the film. The rich here have gotten wealthy directly at the expense of the poor and via fear-mongering, and now the pain of their own policies are returning to visit. It’s not the world’s most subtle political commentary, but it adds a layer of interest beyond the typical “oh my god, they’re in the house!”
The invasion/action portion of the film is pretty standard. Once the killing begins, there’s not much to differentiate it from others of its ilk aside from the sheer body count. People get shot and stabbed and snuck up on, and there’s plenty of screaming by the victims and menace by the masked invaders. Which is fine, I have no problem with well trodden ground, except the creators chose a very poor way to end the film, in my opinion. The word “flat” comes to mind, as in – that’s how it left me.
In spite of the disappointing ending, “The Purge” puts forth a unique political horror premise and creates a level of societal commentary that you don’t get in most horror films. It’s not the world’s most sophisticated or nuanced political metaphor by any means, but its enough to hold viewer’s attention until the carnage begins, and to ruminate on once it does.