I think we've all had thoughts, when someone's doing you a particularly egregious wrong, of intense hatred. Maybe even violence. Perhaps you have gone so far as to think about what you might want to do to this person - but only in your dreams, of course. Because morally and ethically, anything that you might want to do in retribution would be wrong, right?
Quickly The Purge makes its motivations known; on one night of the year, everyone takes part in a mass purging - both of people and emotion - that acts as a nationwide catharsis. If everyone has one night to get rid of their violence and the people who cause them such ills during the other 364 days of the year, the world might be a better place. Throughout the first part of the film, news headlines and clips on TV talk about how great the Purge really is for the economy, and even our protagonist James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) seems to agree that though the Purge is a violent and scary time for those who are targeted, it's actually a boon to the nation.
That's all well and good for him, of course, because he sells security devices to all of his neighbors. His family has gone from scrounging around for pennies to adding wings to their house; they live in a rich gated community, and they can afford to cook meals that have no carbs. In the opening moments, it seems life is good for the Sandins. The biggest problems they have are a couple of annoying neighbors and two kids who like to isolate themselves.
The Purge has an extremely gripping premise, and it's the main attraction for the film. At heart, DeMonaco's film is still a home invasion flick; it shares a lot of similarities to the god of home invasion, Funny Games, and its themes are very similar. But The Purge has enough differences to set it apart from other films; it's about more than just a few strangers who want to have some fun with an innocent family, and it manages to hit more notes than it misses.
As the film opens, James encounters a few of his neighbors on his ride home from work. He seems like a genuinely good guy, and people like him, even if he is richer than they are. In a world where the Purge exists, though, one would expect people to be on their best behavior, especially on a night where anyone can "release the beast." These first moments serve as an introduction to not just the Sandins but the entire futuristic world; paranoia would most likely run rampant, and although we don't see much of it in the film explicitly, the sense of it is still present.
The Purge doesn't spend much time before the festivities, however, which is a huge fault. There's not enough time to meet the other characters in the neighborhood. We're quickly introduced to a wacky neighbor of the Sandins, but the encounter is too harmless to make much of it. The Purge could have thrived on this paranoia - the viewer, fostering a relationship with some of the characters, would be forced to reconcile with the later decisions of people one thought they liked.
But DeMonaco spends much of his time with the Sandins during their ordeal within the Purge. A group of Purge-approvers come to their door after they let in an escaped homeless person they wanted to purge, and the Sandins must find him and hand him over or else risk being killed themselves. The ringleader of these demented souls (Rhys Wakefield) is a Funny Games stand-in - his overly eloquent speech and sneering smile are very reminiscent of the killers in Michael Haneke's film.
The Purge actually does a good job of characterizing the family, though, and I don't fault DeMonaco for the weaker characterization of the others too much. Still, at a lean 85 minutes, the film could have used a little bit of exposition, especially with the killing faction, who come out of nowhere. Yet the bulk of this movie doesn't come from its basic plot; strange to say, I know, but the generic home invasion aspect of The Purge is entertaining but not extremely well done or atmospheric.
What really shines through is DeMonaco's quiet criticism of American society, even if it is unintentional. Our homeless puke, as the murderous faction calls him, is really a veteran; though no dialogue ever tells us this is so, the subtle shots of his dog tags are certainly a tell-tale sign. American veterans who fought for freedom come home to run for their lives as poor and homeless people who must escape the Purge. Thankfully, it's not a heavy-handed reveal, and those who aren't looking might not catch it.
The film also has some interesting things to say about youth entitlement. The faction is mostly made up of rich kids, many of them too scared to reveal their true selves under the protection of a mask. Yet they all believe that the Purge, the ruthless eviction of the homeless and the useless from the world, is their mission. It's a sad truth, even in our reality; as I sat in the movie theater, watching with a bunch of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds who thought they could talk and laugh through the whole film, visions of a not-so-distant future like The Purge's flashed through my mind.
Even better is the reference to the cyclical events of the Purge. When one runs out of "poor" people to eliminate, do they start on the stupid? The blind? When they're all gone, what's left but to get rid of those that are too rich, the ones that make us jealous? In The Purge, this cycle of power and scapegoating is literally depicted on-screen - a powerful image in itself, but also one that DeMonaco slips in without mention.
And even if the ending to the film pretty much comes right out and states its moral, is that really such a bad thing? Because if it hadn't, I'm pretty sure most of my theater wouldn't have taken away the right message from such a film; amid the screams of terror, there was clapping for the deaths of others and a shout-out from a narrow-minded person to "kill them all." If that's not missing the point of The Purge, I'm not sure what is.
Ultimately, The Purge kept me on the edge of my seat the whole time with a narrative that never really lets up. The generic home invasion set-piece isn't the best part of the film, and the film could have used a bit more time exploring the facets of the human moral condition earlier on. But as a whole, The Purge is worth a watch for its quiet criticisms; the ones that go unstated are the most powerful revelations, and despite DeMonaco's occasional overreaches, he manages to leave some themes unattended enough that their disquieting tendrils get under the skin.
The Purge on Rotten Tomatoes