The concept of the new horror-thriller The Purge is enough for me to contemplate moving to another country. One night a year, law-abiding citizens can vent their year-long anger and grudges by committing crimes with no consequences. All emergency services are suspended. Basically, if you don't have a shiny house with a sophisticated security system, you better find a good hiding place or make some rich friends quickly. The problem with The Purge, however, is that the movie's lofty thematic aspirations disappear at the beginning of the third act.
The film opens with a montage of surveillance snippets from previous purges. This was one of the most disturbing moments of the film. Not because people were getting senselessly beaten or shot, but because these images made people in my audience laugh. I was disturbed by the reaction to these images. Just a sidebar.
We learn that unemployment practically disappeared after the introduction to America's new tradition. The New Founding of America stepped in when America was in shambles, and James Sandin (Ethan Hawke), a home security developer, has made a boatload of money on capitalizing on everyone's fears. James and his wife Mary (Lena Headey) choose to stay in with their children, Zooey and Charlie, because they "don't feel the need to purge."
Charlie is at an age where he is questioning the moral complications of the Purge. His parents reassure him that this is what the country needs, but Charlie, an introverted tween, doesn't seem moved by their reasoning. When the Purge begins, Charlie is constantly checking the video monitors. When sees an injured man seeking shelter, Charlie disarms the Fort Knox of a security system, and allows the man inside. First of all, Charlie should have been sent to his room without dinner. That kid would have SO been grounded in my house. Apparently, the annual Purge has no influence on James and Mary's parenting skills.
The Sandin home is soon descended upon by a group of masked, patriotic Americans. They are actually all relatively young and well-groomed. They are terrifying to me, because they look like they all just left the Republican National Convention. The group inform the Sandins that the man they are harboring was actually the target of their Purge, and they want him back so they can exercise their patriotic duties. If the family doesn't find the man and surrender him, they will break in and kill everyone inside. These people are creepy as hell. They all wear big, smiling masks (you've seen them in all the advertising) and wield big, dangerous weapons.
The Purge starts off so strongly. There is a sense of foreboding and dread throughout the first forty minutes or so, and the imagery of the perpetrators outside their home really gets under your skin. The film could easily be a discussion of class structure (most of the victims of the Purge are homeless) or race (the man who enters the Sandin home is the one of the very few African American characters), but by the time the violence starts, The Purge becomes cliched and reductive. Even the main masked man outside the house (his character is named Polite Stranger) starts to appear like he is doing an impression of American Psycho's Patrick Bateman or one of the blonde boys from Funny Games. Is it weird that I also wondered if there was a Purge clean up crew? Does the government pay for the cleanup? How much is that tax? So many questions!!!
The Purge has an interesting premise, so it's unfortunate to see it all dissolve into something so by-the-numbers. One thing you should check out, though, is a site devoted to The New Founders of America. When I first stumbled on it, it looks like any other government-based site, but it discusses the issues of the annual slaughter, as well as features a survey to tell what you think of it all. Check it out here. The Purge looks good on paper, but it just doesn't deliver.