The Purge is a stupid film born out of a smart premise. Set in or around 2022 in a dystopian American society run by a totalitarian party known as the New Founding Fathers, it introduces us to a world where violence is non-existent and unemployment rates have cratered to an astounding 1%. The reason for this, the filmmakers suggest, is the introduction of the 28th Amendment or “The Purge” – an annual 12-hour period from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. in which all criminal activity including theft, assault, murder, (and bad screenwriting) is fair game. During Purge Night, all law enforcement and emergency medical services are suspended, leaving society to fend for themselves. Think of it as Thanksgiving night for a society bred on violence.
Ignoring the fact that the institution of such a day would do more harm than good to a society, it’s an intriguing-enough “what-if” scenario that opens the door for interesting moral and ethical questions. Would instilling such a day really work as catharsis? Would you kill or commit crimes if it were legal? Or would you lock your doors and stay indoors until it’s over? If so, who would you target? How would you go on with your life after the night? The potential for crafting different dramatic scenarios from such a concept are logically endless. It’s too bad then that director James DeMonaco squanders it on a generic home invasion arc that lifts liberally from other better home invasion thrillers like Panic Room, Hostage, The Strangers, Fear, and even Home Alone.
James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) is someone who’s made millions off the Purge. As one of the country’s top security systems experts, life has been pretty great. Only a decade ago, he couldn’t afford the rent, but now, he owns a mega mansion, complete with a top-line security system, and is even contemplating buying a boat for his family. On the tenth anniversary of the Purge, James, his wife Mary (Lena Headey), and two kids Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and Charlie (Max Burkholder) are all set for another mundane night in their suburban fortress, safe from the lunatics outside. But when a bleeding, vagrant (Edwin Hodge) comes running through their neighborhood, crying for help, Charlie feels sorry for him and lets him in.
This unfortunate decision leads to the Sandins becoming the target of a gang of murderous hipsters who brandish creepy masks and dress like The Arcade Fire. Their leader (Rhys Wakefield), a guy whose behavior seems to have been inspired by watching Heath Ledger’s Joker performance on repeat, gives them an ultimatum: Surrender the homeless guy to them or suffer the embarrassment of getting murdered by smug hipsters!
DeMonaco, who previously wrote the woeful The Assault on Precinct 13 remake, another home-invasion-style thriller that starred Hawke, displays a flair for shooting scenes in the dark and adding suspense and dread to the proceedings. But his script, which calls for his characters to do utterly idiotic things like argue with each other over trivial things, or run away from each other while psychos prowl the house is silly. The Zoey character in particular, with her body-hugging, skimpy schoolgirl outfit, exists in the film only as a piece of objectification.
Hawke, who gives one of the year’s best performances in Before Midnight, is never a dull presence, and equips himself well in an action role, even though he doesn’t make much of an effort to hide that he’s doing this solely for the paycheck. Headey on the other hand, so wonderful on HBO’s Game of Thrones, is wasted in a role that boils down to “terrified housewife.” I’ll give DeMonaco some credit though – at a lean 85 minutes, the film doesn’t outstay its welcome.