The Purge takes a terrific dystopian premise and squanders it on a derivative, unengaging home-invasion thriller.
The thing I really, really dislike about The Purge – aside from its obvious and numerous failings as a film – is the fact that it somehow manages to take perhaps the most interesting high-concept dystopian premise I’ve heard in a long time and do absolutely nothing of worth with it. What we have here is a beautiful idea trapped within the confines of a thousand other formulaic slasher movies, and it genuinely upsets me how much of a waste that is.
It’s the near future of 2022, and things are pretty much exactly the same as they are now aside from the fact that the United States government has been commandeered by a vaguely-defined organization known as the New Founding Fathers, the titular “Purge” being their primary contribution towards abolishing violent crime and poverty within America. The Purge itself is an annual, twelve-hour event wherein all crime is legalized and emergency services are completely shut down, allowing citizens to run amok and behave however they please with no potential repercussions to inhibit them.
James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) is a salesman for a security firm which provides the wealthy and privileged – including those who live in the same pleasant gated community as Sandin himself – with advanced systems designed to prevent home intrusion. Inhabitants of this neighbourhood seem to treat the Purge as a kind of reality show, gathering at one another’s houses to pore over giant plasma screens and watch the poor and homeless get beaten to death. Sandin himself is in an unusual position, not only unaffected by the Purge, but also substantially wealthy as a result of it.
(Interestingly, the “advanced home intrusion systems” which Sandin sells can be bypassed in about five seconds with one truck and a length of rope. But, details.)
James is married to Cersei Lannister, and together they have two children: a dopey girl named Zoey; and a boy, Charlie, who for some reason has the mechanical aptitude to build remote-controlled surveillance robots but lacks the requisite common sense not to open the doors to random vagrants in the middle of the night.
As a result of Charlie’s ill-thought-out compassion, the Sandins suddenly find themselves harbouring a wounded tramp (credited as “Bloody Stranger”) who is being pursued by a group of elitist miscreants led by Rhys Wakefield (credited as “Polite Stranger”), who promptly arrive on the doorstep demanding that the Sandins release their new mate before a designated time. If they fail to comply, everyone inside will be slaughtered.
This first act is undeniably the highlight of The Purge’s entire running time. It’s tightly-paced, well-staged, and contains enough social commentary and philosophical musing to keep the intriguing premise at the forefront of our minds. What writer/director James DeMonaco doesn’t seem to understand is that this is the kind of thing we want to see from the concept the whole time, and he is either unwilling or simply unable to sustain the kind of subtle commentary in these opening scenes throughout the entire narrative.
Ethan Hawke and Lena Heady, to their credit, actually do a fairly good job in their respective roles of Mr. and Mrs. Sandin, particularly when they are forced to awkwardly justify both what they are doing and why to not only their children but also each other. James Sandin as a character is a little more than the typical upscale suburban dad forced to defend his home; he’s a man balancing the desire to protect his family with the guilt of having to profit from those less fortunate than himself in order to do so, and any sympathy for his character is constantly underscored by the fact that he’s absolutely part of the problem.
Unfortunately, when Rhys Wakefield turns up on the doorstep with his band of heavily-armed masked maniacs, the whole thing goes completely off the rails, taking the characters with it. Wakefield himself is probably the standout performance of the entire film, and he does more than anyone could reasonably expect with a truly awful role. The majority of his screentime is taken up delivering incredibly heavy-handed, on-the-nose monologues to the Sandin security cameras, extolling the virtues of the privileged and attempting to camouflage his classism behind patriotic hyperbole, yet simply coming across as a massive arsehole and very little else.
DeMonaco’s writing credits include both The Negotiator and the 2005 remake of Assault on Precinct 13, and strong elements of both creep their way into uncomfortable focus as soon as the Polite Stranger and his cronies gain access to the house. The previously-established tension is quickly lost as DeMonaco attempts to weave the (admittedly well-shot) action sequences into the horror trappings he spent the first third erecting, and it’s an incredibly awkward and confusing tonal shift. All of James Sandin’s characterization up to this point is abandoned in favour of letting him roam around the house eliminating the intruders with perplexing efficiency, and the Sandin kids are content to drift in and out of the shadows at various points to force the adult characters into yet more danger as a result of their breathtakingly stupid decisions.
Charlie and Zoey really are nothing more than human MacGuffins; poorly-drawn, hollow caricatures assembled from tired genre clichés and bound by inexplicable narrative logic. Along with Edwin Hodge’s “Bloody Stranger” (who receives literally no characterization whatsoever), their presence, in general, is just born of lazy, low-quality writing which relies too much on the blind idiocy of characters who don’t matter in order to drive events towards characters who do. This is muddled, derivative screenwriting all the way from the start of the second act to what is literally the most awkward and terrible conclusion to a horror/thriller film I have seen in a long, long time.
Conceptually, The Purge is a fascinating idea, and it really is a shame that such an elaborate premise has been used to frame nothing more than an incredibly by-the-numbers slasher flick. The promising subtlety of the opening third is crushed beneath the clumsy writing that the Polite Stranger brings with him to the Sandin doorstep, and any potential tension to be found in the action cannot hope to permeate the genre tropes and omnipresent stupidity of the film as a whole.
This is a disappointing bit of work in pretty much every aspect, and my only real recommendation is that you avoid it.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.