Is society capable of producing something like The Purge puts up on screen? It’s an interesting thought, and the premise pulled in some decent crowds to the early screenings of this latest American thriller. Director James DeMonaco throws us into 2022 – an unsettlingly near future – and creates a world where a new government has reduced unemployment to a mere 1%, and almost completely eradicated crime. This has come at a price; a price named The Annual Purge – a 12 hour stint where all crime is legal and “negative emotions” can be vented. Much is made throughout the film of whether this is indeed an ethical solution to the survival of America, but no matter who questions it, they cannot escape the impressive statistics that define the country for 364 days a year.
The focus is on one particular bourgeois family named the Sandins. Ethan Hawke plays James, who’s seemingly made his living through selling security systems specifically designed for the sole night of crime. Lena Headey is his supportive wife, with kids Zoey and Charlie being textbook teens. The family live in peace and comfort whilst terror reigns outside, until the son cannot prevent himself from deactivating the security system and allowing a wailing stranger outside to take refuge in their home. Not only does this stranger vanish within seconds of entering, a posse of sickly purge supporters come-a-calling soon after, striking up a bargain with the family – release the stranger in return for peace. Failure to comply will result in the deaths of everyone in the home.
The family are sucked into an ethical dilemma on a night where nobody is coming to protect them. The camera darts around in the dark as the power is predictably shut-off. Cue heavy-breathing and false-alarms. The film does briefly threaten to turn into an “Ethan Hawke vs the World” epic, but thankfully merely flirts with this idea before veering around a dark corner into other sections of the night. There are nods towards Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers which go further than the sadistic masks donned by the group lurking around the household, accompanied by screeching violins as things pop up from all sorts of places. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t. The frustrating aspect about The Purge is how it threatens to break new ground but never quite gets there. There are some cliché formulaic elements taken straight out of the book of “Horror Tension for Dummies”; a POV shot from a girl hidden under the bed whilst an evil man thuds slowly around the room in big black boots to name a few. Yet filmmaking such as the slow-swaying camera shot of a female raider skipping down the hallway clutching two swords is beautifully eerie.
There’s no denying I enjoyed The Purge, but it could’ve been something more, choosing to wuss out in places where a little innovation could’ve worked wonders. Indeed, some will find that it moves a step too far away from its big idea, and that it simply becomes another trapped-in-the-dark house runaround flick. Whilst the premise is not executed to its potential, The Purge does have some impressive moments revealing the animalistic tendencies of human beings. Throughout, as an audience we’re forced to wrestle with whether low-crime and unemployment statistics justify twelve hours of unimaginable anarchy. It opens up many other avenues too. Whilst it’s difficult to see a sequel to The Purge working on that many levels, a prequel concerning the establishment of the declaration by the mysterious “New Founding Fathers” is definitely intriguing. How quickly did America readily accept the implementation of the Annual Purge? And how long did it take for the statistics to show?