Movie Review: The Purge (2013)

Universal Pictures
Runtime: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Rated: R (for strong disturbing violence and some language)
Director: James DeMonaco
Writer: James DeMonaco
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Max Burkholder, Rhys Wakefield
Horror | Thriller

In The Purge, we get to see a new America rise from the ashes of the one that most reading this article might happen to reside in now. It is an America “reborn,” the thought carrying with it a patriotism as strong as any that ever came before it, but one much, much crueler. This comes after a time of civil unrest that threatened the nation’s very survival.

The thing that made the rebirth possible is an annual event called The Purge, a 12-hour timeframe set aside to quell the inherently violent and savage tendencies of man in which all crime is legal and all emergency services are suspended. During this period, anything from murder to rape to torture to Hannibal Lector-style mutilation is completely free from prosecution. Allowing this “release” eases the pint-up tensions hidden deep within every one of us (so goes the logic).

And it seems to be working; crime is at an all-time low. Unemployment is at 1%. It’s one big and happy party—those are pretty good results, but “pretty” will not be a fair description for the events in this film (unless torture and ripped open wounds are your cup of tea).

Another year rolls around for the Sandin family and the annual purge is only a few hours away. “James” (Ethan Hawke) is closing one more deal before heading home and locking down with the family. He is a salesman of home security systems and he has sold one to every house in the neighborhood.

Taking time to cook for the family and help settle in properly is James’ wife, “Mary” (Lena Headey), and their children, “Charlie” (Max Burkholder) and “Zoey” (Adelaide Kane). Both are being properly educated as to what the Purge means for the great U.S. of A. It’s as noble as Paul Revere’s triumphant ride to warn of the coming Brits!

All starts out well until Charlie hears a man screaming for help from outside their barricaded walls. When he makes the life-altering choice to let the stranger (Edwin Hodge) in, the lives of the Sandins will never again be the same.

Now Paul Revere was noble, but what isn’t noble is human nature as it is portrayed in this gloriously ominous film. It is an almost one-sidedly diabolical depiction of human nature, willfully forgetting any potential for good man can do (at least for 12 hours). How does that make me feel? Why, I love it!

And you’ve got to get on board with the concept behind the film. Its coolness alone makes it worth the price of the ticket since the dreaded anticipation of invasion will not fail to affect a single viewer.

You can bet your last dollar that a semi-exploitative gore-fest like this will try hard to dish out as much drama and bloodshed as possible, but will also get all soapbox-y about whatever messages it has been loaded with. And it doesn’t break the mould with various strong-handed statements against conservatives, gun control, the dangers of patriotism run amock, and oppressive class warfare (specifically, upper-class, elite whites torturing poor, homeless blacks).

Our head villain, “Polite Stranger” (Rhys “Sanctum,” “Home and Away” Wakefield) is anything but polite and everything a Nazi-fied super-patriot embodies. He is what America’s leftwing envisions and hates as a conservative figure (caricature, really). His white, handsome, clean-cut appearance and well-spoken words become a gouge gone too far—as far as Wakefield's over-performance will take the character (you can just picture him going to a young Republican's meeting with that suit on).

In some sense, everything about this film is a gouge—at decency at least, but it is more of a splurge than a purge. Part of the reason we enjoy the movie as much as we do is because of its escape (the plot itself is a “what if?” take on reality) from our structured, boring lives. What do you imagine doing on a purge? Nothing? Well, watch the film and then tell me that.  

Boring The Purge is not. To go with bonus material like two-faced neighbors are blade-wielding bands of murderers who will cut, slash, saw, and shoot anything or anyone at a mere whim. Just save up your grievances all year long and cut loose for a few hours! Yes, the premise is just too awesome (although it is patently false that it would or could ever make us more peaceful as has been demonstrated). For this reason, The Purge is an inventive horror flick, one that deserves the attention it has coming.

The movie’s weakest segments are made so from off-the-mark performances that can sometimes fail to strike a cord, with some scenes making us ask whether or not people would actually talk the way this family talks during a home invasion.

Ethan Hawke – not a new face for sure, and his is showing his age – gives what is expected, but we never all the way buy into the gravity of the Sandin’s predicament like we were intended to. A few additions to the writing, like showing us more conscious-born resistance to the violence and hatred that the characters face, would have made us care more while providing a greater boost to the film’s central message about the role of conscience in moral decision-making.

Unlike how a so-called purge would work, the movie does easily break us away for long enough to get us feeling dirty and maybe a little violated. And maybe that’s for the better since that was, after all, the goal.