Earlier this summer, Blumhouse Productions (Paranormal Activity, Sinister) released James DeMonaco's second major directorial effort, dystopian horror thriller The Purge. The film performed well at the box office, but received mixed reviews from critics, with Entertainment Weekly saying that it 'clearly has a lot on its mind, but it never really manages to express it.' However, a lot of the questions The Purge asked its audience to ponder were never really intended to be answered by the film's resolution. The Purge simply chronicles one family's horrific night as the government sanctioned Purge makes its way into their home, and forces audiences to ask themselves: What would YOU do if there were absolutely no consequences?
The Purge is set in the not-too-distant future, when American's 'New Founding Fathers' have instituted an annual 12-hour 'Purge' in which all crime is legal and Americans can exercise their aggressions. The film focuses on a wealthy suburban family, the Sandins, who have made their fortune selling security systems to other wealthy suburbanites since the Purge was conceived. Every year, at 7:00 p.m., the Sandins lock down their home for 12 hours along with many other families who do not wish to participate in the violence, but support the event nonetheless. But this year takes a turn for the dangerous when their young son, Charlie, hears cries for help in the street, and opens the doors of their house to a homeless African-American man pursued by sinister gang of masked marauders. The family faces a difficult decision: uphold the right of every American to Purge and surrender the homeless man, or protect him and risk their own lives?
The film plays out like a good old-fashioned home invasion thriller, with a very normal family that audiences grow to like over the 85-minute run time. Charlie is the most compelling, a technological wiz-kid who has built a remote-controlled spy camera to give him eyes around the large house. It is also Charlie whose dialogue prods at the film's larger themes, like when he asks his father why the homeless man deserves to live any less than they do. And another interesting side plot revolves around teenaged daughter Zoey, whose romance with an older boy seems lighthearted until boyfriend Henry uses the Purge as an excuse to go after her disapproving father. Ethan Hawke delivers an earnest if rather bland performance as the patriarch of the Sandin family, and his staunch support of the Purge results in an interesting conflict with his otherwise kind nature. But it is mother Mary Sandin, played by Lena Headey of Game of Thrones fame, who ultimately holds the family together and stands up in support of nonviolence (though not before committing a grisly act with a letter opener).
The mask is a time-honored horror device, and The Purge makes excellent use of some very creepy grinning ones. Other than their so-called 'Polite Leader' (Rhys Wakefield), the murderous gang threatening the Sandins do not remove their masks as they commit brutal, terrible acts against their captives and gleefully destroy their home. This lends a surreal effect to the climactic scenes of the film, and underscores the notion that these violent young people represent every young American who has ever felt a surge of aggression and had a dark fantasy about letting it out. Because ultimately, The Purge is a film that seeks to set you, the viewer, in a stranger's shoes, and leave you wondering if you would do the things that they do, if there were truly no consequences. If you would stand up, like the Sandins, to defend not only your family, but also an innocent stranger. Or if you would seize the opportunity to harm others with impunity, out of unchecked aggression, envy, or just pure hatred.
The film also touches on some themes relating to racism and classism that strike a chord in today's economic climate. Early in the film, a voice over on a television news broadcast describes how The Purge came about as a way for Americans to purge their aggression, but is in fact regarded by many as purging society of its weaker members, those who are unable to defend themselves, or can't afford a safe place to wait out the 12-hour event. The masked people continually dehumanize the homeless man by referring to his as 'The Swine' or 'pig,' and espouse the belief that people like him can only be useful by serving the group's need to Purge. We also see in the film's first scenes that the Sandins' neighbors have no love lost for the family, when neighbor Grace Ferrin jokes with Mary that the neighborhood's security systems paid for the Sandins to put an extension on their home. The envy of the neighbors has festered for some time, and rears its head in the film's final scenes.
Whether or not its themes resound with you, The Purge is a fun little thrill ride in the dark, and will certainly make excellent fodder for this year's Blumhouse Halloween Attraction, The Purge: Fear the Night. The live, interactive experience, which starts September 27th and runs through Halloween week, will put attendees in the shoes of the New Founding Fathers of the dystopian future depicted in The Purge. Tickets are available now at PurgeLive.com.
The Purge comes to DVD October 8th.