By Sherry Lipp
Are people violent by nature? Are Americans just keeping our violent tendencies in check because The Purge seems to be suggesting. In what is an intriguing premise, this film depicts one possible future the U.S. could be moving towards: ultra-conservatism bringing about the end of massive unemployment and crime. The caveat is that everyone gets a free pass to wreak mayhem one night a year in the annual “purge.” For 12 hours anything goes – theft, assault, rape, and even murder are permitted as a way of “cleansing” the soul and shedding minds of violent thoughts. Unfortunately The Purge doesn’t spend a lot of time exploring this idea, instead it languishes in the background as the movie devolves into more conventional horror, never really following through on a coherent point.
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This film gets a lot of things right. As I already mentioned, it’s an interesting idea that gives the film a sinister tone right from the start. Because no one wants to become a target, everyone is extremely nice to each other. It’s so obviously false, but nonetheless people are overly polite and complimentary of each other. I wish the film had spent more time with this idea. The Purge opens only about an hour before the witching hour, so there is not a lot of time for back story. I also found the characters pretty interesting. James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) has capitalized on “the purge” by becoming a top security system salesman. He lives in swanky gated community (all of the residents have purchased their security systems from him) with his wife Mary (Lena Headey) and two children, Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and Charlie (Max Burkholder).
Both children have grown up during the era of the purge, and it has affected them in different ways. High schooler Zoey thinks the whole thing is pretty lame. She’s more concerned about spending time with her 18-year-old boyfriend Henry (Tony Oller). Because Henry is an adult and Zoey isn’t, her parents have forbidden the relationship, creating some tension between Zoey and her parents. Preteen Charlie is much more affected by his surroundings. He lives in a constant state of paranoia. He has created a secret hiding place in his bedroom and constantly records his vital signs. He even sends a webcam, fashioned out of a burnt plastic doll (nicknamed “Timmy”) and remote-controlled toy tank, around the house so he can covertly see what’s going on.
Charlie is confused about the violence of the purge, wondering how people could suddenly stoop to that level of savagery. Charlie is the only one who seems to want to hold on to human decency. While his parents don’t participate in the purge, they are happy to hole up in their house behind their fancy security system. Charlie, on the other hand, takes it upon himself to help a stranded victim. He lets an injured homeless man into their home. It’s at this point the movie abandons its higher concepts and becomes a more typical home invasion thriller. It still works. There’s tons of tension as the family tries to keep an angry mob from killing them. They must wrestle with their own morals as they decide whether to sacrifice the homeless man to save themselves or not. The angry mob of young idealists, wearing creepy, cartoonish masks and wielding guns and machetes, are genuinely scary.
The movie is only a disappointment in that it could have gone farther with some of its ideas. In the background we hear news reports and talk radio debates about the purge. Proponents argue that it’s the only way to keep society in check. Those against it say the purge is merely government-sanctioned elimination of the lower class. Those unable to afford protection during the purge are the easy targets. The young people trying to get into the Sandin’s home believe the poor exist for the purpose of the purge. Is the forced politeness making the society less violent or more violent? The news reports seem to indicate purge activities have been increasing year after year, with this being the “most successful purge” yet (whatever that means). It seems this society has created more hostility, not less. It would have been interesting if some of these concepts were explored, but this film takes place only over the course of 13 hours (and a scant 85-minute running time), so there’s not enough time for that.
I could go on about concepts that don’t make a lot of sense when you think about them, but there is really no point. The bottom line, The Purge is a fairly entertaining movie, with good performances, that does its job of goosing the audience with tension and thrills. It doesn’t get very deep, but it’s an enjoyable enough watch.