The Purge is set in a very near-future America where, under only cursorily explained circumstances, a new government has come to power on the promise of reducing crime and unemployment. And lo, they succeed! Unemployment is at 1%, crime practically a memory. Their solution suggests that they (or at least the movie’s writer-director, James DeMonaco) are Star Trek fans: once a year, for 12 hours, all crime is legal, including murder, the idea being that all of society’s collective aggressions are, per the title, purged.
It’s an intriguing scenario, but one the movie doesn’t get into in any depth, as the story’s focus is on one family’s attempt to get through the Purge, and takes place almost entirely in their house. Paterfamilias Ethan Hawke makes his (quite substantial) living selling high-end home security systems to well-to-do suburbanites so that they can—if they don’t choose to go out killing people—stay home safely.
On the home front, Lena Headey (having left Cersei Lannister’s drunken power politics in Westeros along with the blonde wig) deals with passive-aggressive neighbors and two children, teenage daughter Zoey (whose older boyfriend meets with disapproval from mom and dad) and preteen son Charlie, a sensitive boy who builds cool robots and questions the moral right of the Purge. The Stepford aspect of their neighborhood, which feeds Hawke’s complete assurance that nothing can go wrong, is a virtual guarantee that something will. And, inevitably, it does.
Ethan Hawke is oddly perfect in this, as a guy desperately trying to convince himself and everyone around him that things are somehow not what they are. He still seems, with all his ineffable (and effable) Ethan Hawke-ness, to be a little too young and slight to be king of the suburbs with teenage kids. But his seeming like “a young 42” suits his character here just right. Lena Headey’s role in the proceedings is a little difficult to talk about in too much detail without giving away plot details, but suffice to say her final scene is quite satisfying.
Whether, on the whole, The Purge ends up seeming like an intriguing premise wasted on a home-invasion thriller or a home-invasion thriller with a neat high concept is going to vary depending on expectations. For my part, I went in with as few expectations as someone who’d spent the previous couple weeks making every possible “for the next 12 hours, [x] is legal” joke could have, and personally found it to fall into the “home-invasion thriller with a neat high concept” category. Its shifts in tone are handled smoothly by relative novice director DeMonaco (who is, though, a veteran screenwriter), and its various narrative twists and turns provide enough genuine surprises to at least partially outweigh the obvious stuff.
Nothing is terribly subtle in The Purge, in particular its extremely pointed commentary about class and gun culture. Hawke’s high-end home security system proves to have “not been tested for worst-case scenarios,” because his principal concern was not the quality of the systems he sold, but the money he made from selling them. The new additions he had built on his house with that money arouses the envy of the neighbors. Status, and competition for it, is all.
As neatly as The Purge works as a thriller, the world implied by “the New Founding Fathers,” the swiftness of their rise to power, and the totally-different-yet-pretty-much-the-same society that annually declares open season on the powerless classes for the sake of keeping unemployment down (and yet still has homeless military veterans) is practically begging for sequels. This one is nothing great, but is just interesting enough, and just pointed enough about making its (pretty graphic) violence tough to watch rather than entertaining, to feel worth exploring in greater detail. I’m interested in seeing a sequel, whether with the same cast or not, where we find out a little more about this world. Which is something I never thought I’d say when making all those “for the next 12 hours” jokes.