Film Review: The Purge
Directed by James DeMonaco
Near-nonexistent crime, incredibly low unemployment rates, empty prisons, a flourishing economy: Set in the not-so-distant future, James DeMonaco’s The Purge envisions an ideal America—with one caveat. One night each year, all crime is completely legal. Created by the “New Founding Fathers,” this 12-hour period of mayhem (the eponymous purge) allows American citizens to “release the beast” and satisfy their natural violent impulses, resulting in a nearly conflict-free remainder of the year.
Inherent contradictions aside (Wouldn’t such widespread carnage only encourage revenge plots or further violence? What about the possibility of complete destruction within the 12-hour window?), The Purge’s premise is psychologically appealing. DeMonaco’s film, however, takes only a tepid stab at addressing the social issues it raises. The interest of the film’s initial scenes, for example—‘live’ footage of the purge, in all its soul-cleansing, ax-wielding glory—soon gives way to a barrage of stereotypes.
The Purge is centered on the Sandin family, headed by wealthy security system salesman James (an uneven Ethan Hawke) reaping the benefits of the night’s brutal hedonism. His wife, Mary (played by a surprisingly convincing Lena Headey), acts as the no-nonsense counterpart to her Stepford neighbors, while daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and son Charlie (Max Burkholder) fall neatly into their compartmentalized roles: Zoey, the eye-rolling teenager nurturing a forbidden love affair with her older boyfriend, and Charlie, the Goth with a heart of gold.
The Sandins’ provincial lives are turned upside down when Charlie (DeMonaco’s moral compass throughout the film) disarms the security system to provide sanctuary for a purge victim in need. From there, the film spirals into an effectually thrilling, if formulaic parade of jarring camera angles, suspenseful music, and oh-God-why-are-they-splitting-up anxiety. Upping the ante of the scares is the arrival of the film’s nameless villain (Rhys Wakefield), whose assertion of his right to purge the poor and homeless “swine” contributes a bizarre socioeconomic significance to the night’s lawlessness. (The positive effect of the extermination of the poor, who cannot afford to defend themselves, is in fact alluded to elsewhere in the film.)
While the villain—at times strangely charming—and his masked troupe are self-consciously creepy, playing childish games (think swing sets) and pranks on the Sandins, to the point of absurdity, their foolishness doesn’t mean you won’t have nightmares about them later. DeMonaco creates a real, though fleeting sense of fear without resorting to sheer gore. There are some nasty moments, but the violence is largely more PG-13 than R.
Though the final scenes contain a semi-shocking twist, The Purge ends before it has really begun. Little is done to treat the multitudes of social and psychological issues DeMonaco glazes over (with the exception of a few sprinklings of moralistic dialogue), and the inconclusive message of the film leaves droves of questions unanswered. Unfortunately, DeMonaco himself doesn’t seem to know the answers, resulting in a story line that is little more than a relatively entertaining missed opportunity. Overall, the film seems unlikely to leave audiences feeling purged of much more than the 10 bucks it took to get in.