The Purge (2013)
Sci-fi cautionary tales have been an outstanding way to provide commentary for contemporary anxiety. Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont, and the recently departed Richard Matheson were masters of this. A movie can make you think as speculative fiction while still following a thriller/horror blueprint to entertain the masses. And so writer/director James DeMonaco (Assault on Precinct 13, The Negotiator) wades into these waters with The Purge, a home invasion thriller that has a premise that, on the surface, might make you scoff. In 2022, the United States has practically solved unemployment and crime thanks to a nifty little holiday known as the Purge. Every year, for a twelve-hour window, law is rescinded and so are emergency services like police and firefighters. For those 12 hours, good American men and women are allowed to engage in just about every sort of crime up to and including murder. It’s designed for people to release all their aggression and darker impulses, thus allowing for a safer, happier 364 and a half days a year.
James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) is the top salesman when it comes to hardcore home security systems, the kind with the thick metal doors over your windows and doors. He lives in one of those finely protected homes with his wife, Mary (Lena Headey), and children, Max (Max Burkholder) and Zoey (Adelaide Kaine). They’re prepared for a long night behind barricades. Then a wounded black man (Edwin Hodge) runs through the cushy neighbor, crying desperately for help. Charlie offers him refuge inside the Sandin abode. Shortly after, a group of masked vigilantes, led by a lad who looks like Patrick Bateman, knock on the Sandin home. The bloody ma is their “bait,” and these angry folk demand he be returned to them, or else they will be coming in and sparing no one.
This high-concept thriller is a well-crafted suspense piece, with several well-developed sequences that squeeze out tension. The premise involves some mighty suspension of disbelief but you’d be surprised how easy it is to accept and move on. The kids provide dissenting voices, mostly Charlie, and we get a lean history of the Purge and all the information we need to go forward, at least for this night. I liked how it’s become a common passing greeting to say “Stay safe” to people on the day before the Purge. Little details like that make the world feel more thought out. I like that engaging in the Purge is thought of as one’s patriotic duty. There are some tantalizing moments of dread as well, like a neighbor sharpening his killing tools outdoors. But really the movie comes down to its suspense, broken up into a series of different goals. James wants to protect his family and return the “bait,” but first he needs to find him and subdue him. Charlie wants to save him and get to him first. It’s your standard people-groping-in-the-dark kind of picture, but when given a strong sense of urgency and some good actors, it can be plenty suspenseful. DeMonaco does a fine job of making sure his story doesn’t get too confusing, tasking the audience with keeping track of too many participants. So when we have Zoey’s bad boyfriend (Tony Oller), he’s dealt with before the manhunt begins. When the home invasion kicks in, the manhunt is over. When it looks like Zoey is heading straight for the stranger, it’s a storyline that culminates very quickly. There’s a good sense of clarity throughout The Purge, which aids the effectiveness of the thrills.
For the first half of the movie, things snap together well enough that you just accept the premise and its implications, forgoing the nitpicks that wait. It isn’t until the third act where you start to disengage from the film and pick it apart. As a cautionary tale, it has some interesting ideas about class warfare; the main villain is right out of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist playbook. But the ideas and moral commentary fade as the movie becomes more a standard, albeit effective, suspense thriller. I really appreciated the argument that unemployment is so low because the Purge takes care of the sick, homeless, and poor and disadvantaged, those chiefly who cannot defend themselves and are easily targeted. It’s an eerie extreme that doesn’t feel too many steps removed from the last presidential election where Republican primary debate audiences cheered the hypothetical death of the poor. But then the nitpicks do come and once they do it’s like a rushing tide that cannot be stopped. Why do people have stockpiles of guns but no bulletproof vests and gear? Why wait for the bad guys to get in when you and your armed, well-defended family in your home fortress can preemptively strike? Why would you order the Sandin family to return your “bait” and then turn off their power? Doesn’t that make it much harder? Why would killing your girlfriend’s father win her over? Do you think she’s really still going to be your girlfriend after that? How big is this house that people get lost in it constantly? Who hides under the bed in this day and age? And, when hiding from intruders who wish to kill you, why in the world would you keep your flashlight on?
It’s late in this last act that the film tries to go one step too far. The home invasion commences, the struggles are pretty dandy to watch with some creepy imagery, and then DeMonaco has to go beyond that, introducing a secondary set of antagonists that at once feel obvious and poorly set up. The family asks, befuddled, why these new antagonists are doing what they’re doing, but they, and you, will not get a straight answer. It’s really designed to be shocking and little else, and so it feels tacked on and unnecessary. The last ten minutes of the film fumble the momentum of the movie. It’s a stumble at the finish line and leaves some lingering doubt as you assess the effectiveness of the whole movie.
So the premise begs the question: what would you do with a lawless 12-hour window? I think most human beings would be too timid to embrace their animal side. Morals and ethics factor in, naturally, but really I think it’s just good old fear, the fear that anyone else can snuff you out with impunity, and engaging in the Purge also makes you a target. I think most people would probably try and engage in heists, but then the bank would be crawling with twenty different heist teams squabbling over who gets the loot. The banks would also surely increase their security astronomically.
The premise, while intriguing, also permeates with scads of ambiguity. Purge hours are from 7 PM to 7 AM, but what if you’re in the midst of committing a crime and go over the window? To use the bank robbery example, what if you get the money but fail to leave the bank by 7 AM, or even have? At that point, are you considered a criminal? Does the money go back to being counted as stolen goods or if it was pilfered during Purge hours it doesn’t count? Then there are the psychological ramifications of said Purge. If your neighbor raped your wife, Scott-free, you cannot tell me that vengeance isn’t going to play a key part in next year’s Purge. Seeing that face every day, acting “neighborly” while knowing what happened, plotting, waiting, and while the rapist neighbor prepares for the attack as well. Actually, that sounds like a pretty decent sequel (you can have that one for free, Blumhouse). How much Purge-related violence is just retaliatory vengeance? How do people stay in this country? If I as rich and could afford a super pricy security system, perhaps I’d rather take a weekend getaway to Canada instead. Or just stay for good.
The Purge is an effective little thriller until it isn’t, which thankfully only unravels in the concluding ten minutes or so. Until then, DeMonaco gooses his film with enough scares and thrills to justify a sitting, leaving an audience mostly satisfied until they exit and start to pick the film’s nature apart. I would have liked a bit more moral inquiry, political commentary, and some headier looks into these New Founding Fathers running the country, but I was satisfied with the suspense thriller I got. It’s modest, proficient, and well developed with its suspense, so I can’t be too picky. Then again, with this premise, The Purge could have been a lot more than what it is, a lot more disturbing and a lot more contemplative. But I’ll settle for effective and call it a day.
Nate’s Grade: B-