In what seems like a premise which could allow for all hosts of social commentary, The Purge winds up being one devoid of all but the most obvious and easy criticisms. That basic idea involves a 12-hour period every year called the “Purge,” during which point there are no laws. Everything — including murder, the government would like to remind everyone, because that needs singling out — is decriminalized for this period. The year is 2022, and crime rate and poverty are now at an all-time low, purportedly because of this Purge.
Does this not sound like an idea which could have almost endless possibilities, both in plot and in the way it could try to explain the human condition? I think it does, but the people behind The Purge seem to disagree. They’ve come up with this brilliant premise and use it to … set up a formulaic home invasion movie, a genre which really doesn’t need much to establish it. “Here is a rich family, here are some poor people who want what the rich family has, and you have your movie.” That’s all that is necessary.
In fact, what I just said would probably wind up having more to say about class disparity than The Purge, which flat out tells us early on that some critics of the Purge think it’s just a way to justify killing off the weak and homeless — those who can’t defend themselves. That’s why there are low crime rates and homelessness, they say; it has nothing to do with letting out frustrations. This is explained in the first five minutes, briefly touched upon later by the main villain as justification for the home invasion, and then never mentioned again. We’re too busy using horror clichés to do anything interesting.
The same can be said of pretty much every potentially interesting idea or development of the film, including the Purge itself. Many things are mentioned and then never expanded upon. And there are definitely some things that need explaining. Who are these new “founding fathers” who made this idea possible. How, just a few years into the future, had the economy collapsed so bad that this was proposed as a solution? What is with the cult-like mentality with which some people perform their purging?
That last point is especially confusing. A late-game but unsurprising twist only makes you wonder exactly why a large number of people go from happy-go-lucky to raging murderer at the sound of a siren. Some parts of the screenplay seem to be hinting at something more, something deeper, but nothing ever comes up. The Purge is almost completely removed from its premise once its titular event begins, as it is at this point when it becomes just a simple home invasion movie. The good people want the bad people out, and the bad people want into the good people’s home.
Those “good people” are a family of four who support the Purge as a concept but do not participate because they don’t feel the need. The father, James (Ethan Hawke), sells the security equipment families buy to protect themselves. Here’s another possibly interesting idea that goes nowhere. The wife, Mary (Lena Headey) has nothing to define her. The daughter, Zoey (Adelaide Kane), has a boyfriend of whom her father doesn’t approve, and the youngest, Charlie (Max Burkholder), has a toy robot with a low-quality camera on it , because the filmmakers needed low-angle, poor quality shots because they are perfect for jump scares.
Oh, and if you were hoping there weren’t going to be a lot of jump scares, they pop up every couple of minutes once the film gets going. They’re tiresome and aren’t very effectively set up, and they’re also the crutch the filmmakers use whenever they feel the film is getting boring. “Boo!”
The bad people are often in masks — because somebody in the production team saw The Strangers — except for the leader (Rhys Wakefield), channeling the two invaders from the Funny Games remake and being the only reason to see this movie. They want in because at the start of the Purge the good family took in a homeless man (Edwin Hodge), and they want to kill the homeless man. My mistake, it wasn’t the family who took him in, it was the kid, Charlie, who has to be one of the stupidest characters in a horror movie in a while.
Everything this child does is contrary to what he should do. He directly causes almost all of the problems that the family has to deal with in the film. It doesn’t help that Max Burkholder is terrible in the role, but because his character is so stupidly written there isn’t a lot he could do. Actually, all the actors — save Rhys Wakefield, who is exempt on account of him being good — are terrible, and if you want most of the family to die by the end, you’ll have shared in what I felt while watching it.
The Purge begins with a high-concept idea but winds up squandering all of its potential and instead becomes a stupid, annoying, and very brief (fewer than 80 minutes before credits) horror movie that never explores any of the potentially interesting concepts that it brings up. Except for one creepy performance given by Rhys Wakefield, there isn’t much worth seeing. Just go re-watch The Strangers.