Although it is being marketed as a horror film (“From the Producer of Paranormal Activity and Sinister”) The Purge has little in common with typical scary movie fare. There are no demons from other dimensions, no unstoppable homicidal maniacs and no supernatural elements whatsoever. The Purge is a house-under-siege thriller in the vein of The Last House on the Left, Straw Dogs and Panic Room. Its clever premise is mostly an excuse for a little social commentary while the body count climbs.
It’s the year 2020, and crime in America is virtually non-existent. The economy is thriving once again, especially for James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) who makes his living selling hi-tech security systems to his wealthy neighbors. What is responsible for this new utopia of a country? The Purge, an annual twelve-hour period where all criminal laws are suspended, and the American public can prey on each other without law enforcement intervention or fear of subsequent prosecution. Government officials are exempt, so no political assassinations are allowed. With that single exception, you are free to blow off some steam or hole-up in your McMansion with its state-of-the-art protections and watch Purge coverage on television.
In the opening moments of the film, Sandin, his wife, Mary (Lena Headey) and their two children are beginning their annual lockdown for The Purge. After arming their security system, their son, Charlie, notices a homeless man fleeing from a crowd of armed Purge participators. Charlie disarms the security system and provides the man with shelter in the Sandin home. There’s just one problem: Their homeless house guest killed a member of the lynch mob outside, and they will stop at nothing to get in the Sandin home and exact their revenge. They are given a choice: Hand the homeless man over to the angry crowd or die alongside him if they can penetrate the four walls of the Sandin’s fortress.
The mayhem that ensues is surprisingly tense, and the middle portion of The Purge is filled with a growing sense of dread. The filmmakers avoid the pitfalls of substituting gory deaths for genuine tension, and The Purge rises above becoming just another entry in the “torture porn” genre. At a lean 85 minutes, the film knows not to overstay its welcome, and it’s not bad for what it is. It simply could have been more.
Lip service is given to the social issues involved in The Purge. The wealthy can afford to hide behind the walls of their palaces while the poor and downtrodden take it on the chin on Purge night. There are even references to the economy improving because so many “undesirables” are eliminated during The Purge each year. The Sandins discuss sacrificing one man to protect their entire family. Is it wrong to literally sacrifice one man for the greater good? Especially when there will be no legal repercussions for what you choose to do?
While the film tries to make us think the Sandins have a conscience and are a cut above their vacuous rich neighbors, they never even ask for the name of their unexpected guest. (Even IMDb lists him as “Bloody Stranger”.) He’s given no back story to make us care about his plight, and yes, he’s black. I guess all the white homeless people took the night off.
It would be too harsh to say that The Purge squandered a great premise by turning it into a routine thriller. It’s actually better than the vast majority of films released under the horror moniker in a given year. It’s simply a one-note movie that leaves the viewer thinking more about its potential than admiring what was actually on screen. Sometimes a viewer’s enjoyment of a movie like The Purge is based on the investment of money and effort put into seeing it. If you’re streaming it on Netflix nine months from now while you’re lying on your sofa late at night, you’ll think it’s better than all the critics were saying. You might rate it as high as 8 out of 10 because it was a pleasant surprise and exceeded your low expectations. If you went to a 10 p.m. screening on a Thursday and paid a night-time price for your ticket, you’d give it no more than ……
7 out of 10
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.