Having previously collaborated on 2005’s underappreciated Assault On Precinct 13 remake, James DeMonaco and Ethan Hawke continue to pay homage to John Carpenter with this mostly-sharp dissection of upper class fears via the medium of the social satire sci-fi siege movie.
2022. In the face of mounting crime and a crumbling economy, the American government has instituted The Purge: one night a year when emergency servIces will not respond to calls and citizens can commit any felony they want without repurcussions.
James Sandin (Hawke) and his family live in the biggest house in an exclusive gated community, safe from the looting, rape and murder that many have to face. But when his son opens the door to a man fleeing from a murderous gang, James and his wife Mary (Lena Headey) have to decide what they can live with and they’re willing to do to survive.
The film’s best quality is its satirical streak, and DeMonaco uses the quiet of the first half hour to make the most of it.
We meet James on his drive home from work as he celebrates a terrific financial year while the radio station takes calls from listeners explaining what they’re going to do during The Purge. When the final caller tells the DJ that he’s going to kill his boss, we realise that The Purge is something that is accepted as part of American life. The Sandins’ neighbours have organised a “Purge party” and others are going hunting together. The normalisation is what makes it chilling.
DeMonaco’s script is much more comfortable discussing the social and political repurcussions of the purge than the primal ones. The young black homeless man (Edwin Hodge) looking for refuge in the gated community is being hunted by a group of spoiled white yuppie teens in blazers (led by the impressively creepy Rhys Wakefield).
The script implies that the reason why The Purge has improved the American economy is that it functions as an annual whittling down of the lower classes. This is not the subtlest of social critiques but it is effective.
It would have been nice to have a little character examination to go along with the broader social commentary. However, with a running time of 85 minutes and the need to make good on that promise of home invasion by violent loons in creepy masks, there’s not much room for any explanation as to why James and Mary don’t feel the urge to purge.
There’s only time for a wider social swipe.
Hawke and Headey are on good form, giving committed turns as the characters are forced to recognise that hiding behind plated steel isn’t enough and some form of action must be taken.
Things start to wobble, however, when the young Purgers show up in pursuit of the nameless stranger. The ringleader suffers from too much monologuing, every twist and turn is clearly signposted, and the script’s own moral compass starts wavering once the Sandins are forced to take up Straw Dogs positions.
DeMonaco capably ramps up the tension but it settles into the home invasion routine a little too easily. The wit of the first half dissipates as The Purge becomes an efficient, tense, but slightly formulaic horror/thriller.