In the years following an economic collapse, a group known as the New Founding Fathers of America has been able to turn things around. The economy is booming, the unemployment rate is less than one percent and crime is extremely low. In order to maintain the hard work and goodwill of the people, the New Founding Fathers have established the Purge. Once a year for 12 hours all crime is legal, including murder. Only the highest ranking government officials are exempt from the Purge which is used to allow the people to vent all their rage and negative feelings. James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) profits from the Purge as he sells high-end security systems to protect people’s homes, including his own. Business has been so good that he is due a bonus because he has sold more security systems than anyone in his office, many of them to his neighbors. James lives in a gated community of beautiful large homes and perfectly manicured lawns. James, his wife Mary (Lena Headey) and their two children, 16-year old Zoey and 13-year old Charlie (Adelaide Kane and Max Burkholder) live a life of luxury. Of course, there are some problems: Zoey is moody, belligerent and dating Henry (Tony Oller) who James doesn’t like because Henry is 18. Henry often sneaks into the house to visit and make out with Zoey. Charlie is a little neurotic, taking his pulse and temperature every hour and writing them down in a book. Charlie is very smart and has converted an RC tank into a roving surveillance camera, equipped with a microphone and an infrared camera. The family prepares for the annual Purge with a meal then gathers in an observation room outfitted with monitors showing images from their security cameras as well as a video feed of news coverage. James activates the security system and steel doors come down covering all the doors and windows. Charlie is watching the monitors as everyone else goes off to other parts of the house and sees a stranger (Edwin Hodge) who appears to be bleeding and begging for protection from people trying to kill him as part of the Purge. Meanwhile, Zoey gets to her room and discovers Henry has snuck back into the house before the security system was activated. He tells her of his plan to talk to her father and convince him to let the couple see each other. Zoey is afraid of what might happen but Henry insists. Charlie deactivates the security system and the steel doors begin to open. He yells for the stranger to come inside the house. James reactivates the system and the stranger gets in just before the security doors close. James and Mary see the stranger and James aims a gun at him. Henry appears at the top of the stairs and pulls a gun of his own, planning to kill James, not talk to him. James fires back, hitting Henry. In the confusion the stranger slips away, hiding somewhere in the house. A group of masked and armed people show up led by a young, well-spoken man (Rhys Wakefield). He wants the Sandin’s to give them the stranger, a homeless man they targeted for death in the Purge or they will bypass the home’s defenses and kill their target and everyone else in the house. With no emergency services available until after the Purge, James and his family must find the stranger and turn him over to be killed or fight the well-armed gang to protect themselves and a man they don’t know.
I went to “The Purge” expecting to dislike it. I doubted a story of haves and have nots and the government sanctioning of citizens killing each other to keep the economy strong would be very appealing. While I found the basic story disgusting, the film itself is a very effective thriller with at least an attempt to show the hypocrisy of those who support the Purge until it impacts their family. The film also shines a light on jealousy, homelessness, poverty and hubris. While all these points got a superficial going over, the fact of a summer action picture including such topics is still pretty amazing.
While I come to praise “The Purge,” I’m here to bury it a little as well. The movie has plot holes in it large enough to drive a truck through and at one point it very nearly does. There is some common sense things that struck me as poorly thought out about the film. First, the high-ranking security system salesman has one of his own security systems on his home but doesn’t have a safe room built into his house. There is the possibility of his system failing or being overridden somehow so you’d think he’d prepare for a worse-case scenario. As the family is hiding in the house from the bloodthirsty Purge participants, there doesn’t seem to be any locks on the interior doors so all the crazies are just walking around the house and are able to quickly search every room. Also, the bad guys are able to rip the steel plates off the windows and doors with a pickup truck and chains. Where did they attach the chains? Were there some handy-dandy eyelets to hook up to? If there were, that seems like really poor planning and product design. All the windows are easily smashed to allow easy access. Shouldn’t they have shatter-proof, bullet-proof glass?
Naturally, as with any scary movie, the characters do stupid things that put them in danger. They don’t look around corners and end up walking into someone out to kill them. They don’t look behind them after walking past an open window and miss the bad guy entering to kill them. They pick very conspicuous places to hide not thinking they will be quickly found by people trying to kill them. Noticing a theme?
Another issue I had with the film is that it is set only 10 years in the future. In that relatively short period of time there has been a complete economic collapse, an apparent revolution or radical shift in the political system, economic recovery and a nationwide acceptance of government-sanctioned murder and mayhem. Call me naïve, but that seems like a great deal of change in a very short period of time. Fifty or 100 years would have been more believable for that much adjustment in American thinking.
Despite some rather glaring inconsistencies, “The Purge” is able to suck in the audience with quirky and terrifying characters on the hunt for people they consider inferior and a drain on their “perfect” society and those who protect them. It is a theme that has been played out many times in literature and film. As recently as the latest Tom Cruise film “Oblivion” the idea of superior creatures taking advantage of what they consider inferior ones is a frequently used device to establish the central conflict of a story. “The Purge” is also able to wring every bit of tension out of the situation, using tried and true film techniques. Our field of vision is often limited to just one character as they are walking through the house. As they walk around a corner or move slightly to one side, we can see they are being watched or they have just missed running into someone trying to kill them.
"The Purge" is rated R for strong disturbing violence and some language. There are numerous shootings, some more bloody than others. There are also scenes of riots, looting and general mayhem. There is one stabbing that is rather graphic and shown in close up. There is also a scene where a character is tortured with a letter opener jabbed in an open wound. Foul language is scattered.
“The Purge” is far from a perfect movie but it does one thing exceptionally well: It ratchets up the tension and, using low lighting and tight camera work, puts the audience in the middle of an impossibly frightening scenario. This average family must fight for their lives against bloodthirsty killers on a night when there are no consequences for murder and mayhem. While I would like to think I wouldn’t participate in such barbarism, I’m certain I would do whatever was necessary to protect my family and go to any extreme to punish those who would harm them. If you think about it, that might be the very definition of situational ethics.
“The Purge” gets four bloodthirsty guitars out of five.
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