Ethan Hawke - James Sandin
Lena Headey - Mary Sandin
Max Burkholder - Charlie Sandin
Adelaide Kane - Zoey Sandin
Edwin Hodge - Bloody Stranger
Rhys Wakefield - Polite Stranger
Tony Oller - Henry
Genre - Horror/Thriller
Running Time - 85 Minutes
In the year 2022, America is a lot different than it is now. There's barely any unemployment. Crime is minimal. Supposedly this has been maintained by an annual 12-hour event known as The Purge. Adopted by the U.S. Government, The Purge is a half-day period where all crime [especially murder] is considered legal. However, you can only use certain weapons and only murder certain people without being arrested or tried for that crime.
The film focuses on the Sandin family, who live in a white-bread, gated community with highly advanced security systems and supposed impenetrable windows to keep people out. James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) is the one who has made a living selling these advanced security systems to the entire community. It's made him super rich, which hasn't been pleasing to his neighbors, who feel that The Sandins owe their current lives to them. During The Purge, James, his wife Mary (Lena Headey), their bratty teenage daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane), and young son Charlie (Max Burkholder) stay inside to watch the Purge.
However, things don't exactly go as planned. For one, Zoey's older boyfriend, Henry (Tony Oller), has snuck into the house to have a man-to-man talk with James about accepting the age difference between him and Zoey. Also, Charlie - having a conscience at the worst possible time - decides to let in a homeless bloodied stranger (Edwin Hodge), who has been escaping a group of sinsiter folks who don't want their Purge ruined by anyone. The leader of this group (Rhys Wakefield) want their stranger back, or else they'll invade the Sandin home and kill everyone inside.
THE PURGE is one of those films that I was really excited to watch this year. The premise is a great one, and the marketing has been fantastic as well. Judging by Friday's box office receipts [$18 million already on a $3 million budget], I wasn't the only one anticipating this one. However, I can't help but feel disappointed by THE PURGE. It's not a terrible film at all. In fact, there are some interesting and memorable moments throughout it's short running time. But when I find the concept of the film more interesting than the actual narrative that's meant to execute it, there's a problem.
THE PURGE's main problem is definitely its narrative. That's not to say it's bad, because it isn't. But considering the concept and how much potential it truly has, I can't help but feel deflated by the execution of the story. For me, the best part of THE PURGE was the first act. Not only does it establish the main characters [although they could have used some backstory to make them more likeable], but it attempts to explain the purpose of The Purge. Through TV shows and security video footage, we learn that The Purge is a way for Americans to unleash the aggression they've been harboring for others an entire year in an annual 12-hour period. They claim that human beings are naturally violent creatures, so this allows them to have 12 hours to commit all the crimes they want without facing any sort of consequences. Supposedly, this has allowed the population to be thinned out, letting the economy become stronger and crime to decline. Now sure, you have to have a suspension of disbelief to really follow this. I mean, is it really realistic for people to harbor all this hate and anger for an entire year, just so they can unleash it during The Purge? It's not really believable. Also, The Purge seems to focus on murder, but not on rape or theft. I'm not saying it has to go there, but it's hard to fathom that no one would take advantage of this time to sexually assault someone, or loot things for their own benefit. Still, I like the idea of this Purge, because it creates a ton of debate and social commentary that most films in this genre tend to shy away from for more visual stimuli. I'm not saying THE PURGE is the smartest horror-thriller in the world. But it's nice to have an intelligent concept in the background to give a reason to why this film exists to begin with. I just wish more was done with it, which I'll get to in a moment.
Obviously, THE PURGE is a commentary on the 99% vs. the 1%. The Sandins, their neighbors, and even the villains all seem to be in that upper class, upper-middle class range. They have the money. They have the protection. And tend to not want to deal with people beneath them. The bloodied stranger who Charlie lets into the house is not only homeless, but he was a war veteran and an African-American. The fact is that the Purge seems based on having the 1% kill off the 99% in order to maintain what's considered the "American Dream". The Purge thins out the homeless population. The Purge thins out the criminal world, like drug dealers. It gives the rich more power in order for them to rule America, making everyone else feel like second-class citizens. In a scary way, it's real life. While watching this, I didn't doubt that the Government would allow something like this to happen, just to fix the country's "issues". The society is usually catered to those who have money, which makes THE PURGE creepier if you think about it.
There's also an issue of morality, which I felt the film should have played more with. While The Purge has done great things for the country, it really isn't morally right to kill others because they may not look like you, or afford the things you can. Charlie, the Sandin's son, is the only one who really questions The Purge. Being young, he doesn't understand why people need to kill others for 12 straight hours. He also calls out his parents for supporting the idea, but never participating in it. It's the very reason why Charlie goes against his parents and lets the bloodied stranger inside after he's calling for help. Obviously, Charlie is naive to the consequences of his actions, but it's obvious he has a different opinion on The Purge compared to the rest of his family. Along the way, both James and Mary realize that this Purge isn't all it's cracked up to be, embracing the idea but condemning the execution. I'm glad this moral issue was expressed somewhat in the film, but like much of the social commentary, it feels more like a plot device rather than the focus of the film, which I felt it needed to be. Still, it's better than nothing.
As for the actual script and characters themselves, I'm half-and-half on it. I'm kind of let down that instead of being a film about morality and class differences within the horror stuff, THE PURGE is mainly capitalizing on the "home invasion" sub-genre. In fact, I find it ironic that James DeMonaco directed this, since he also directed the remake to ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, which is what THE PURGE follows almost to a tee. It also adds in a bit of THE STRANGERS, just without the mysterious motives that made that film so memorable. I don't have issues with home invasion films. In fact, I like most of them on a visceral level. But when you have a broad idea like The Purge, you expect broad execution for it. Why stick with one family, when you could make an anthology out of it and show us different scenarios within these 12 hours? That way we can see multiple points of view and how this effects different citizens. But THE PURGE chose the safe route, which is kind of unfortunate. Not to say that it's told terribly, because I did have fun with the home invasion angle in the last half of the film. But you kind of expect more where it concerns the premise. That's all I'm saying.
It also doesn't help that the characters we have to follow aren't all that likeable or interesting. James takes advantage of others to become rich. Mary is uncomfortable by James' actions, but doesn't want to give up the life of luxury. Zoey is a brat who only cares about pleasing her older boyfriend, and hating her father for not liking him. And Charlie seems to be a bit of a genius, whose conscience creates nothing but tragedy for him. We don't get much backstory about this family, just bits and pieces here and there. We don't know what their lives were like before the Purge. All we know is that James and Mary sort of lost their humanity while on the road of being financially successful, which turns 180 degrees by the film's end. So at least they had some sort of character arc. Zoey is annoying from beginning to end, really. I get that teenagers are supposed to be difficult, but I was so turned off by her that I wanted her to be a victim of the Purge badly. By the way, the whole Henry angle was purely for shock value. Not sure how much older this guy was or why James hated him so much. And it ended before it could really begin. So I found this plot angle to be pointless. And Charlie lost all sympathy by letting this stranger into the home. Not only that, but he tried to hide him inside the house, knowing that his family would be killed if he wasn't found and given to the villains. I wanted him to be a victim of the purge too. It's been a long time since I've watched a horror-thriller, calling the characters names and wishing them bodily harm. There's one thing to be naive. It's another to be stupid.
To be honest with you, I actually favored the villains more than I did the Sandins. At least they were interesting and so bizarre, that they made me laugh. That probably wasn't the intention [I'm sure they were meant to be creepy and scary instead of hilarious], but I couldn't help it. But at least they stood out. Especially the leader of the group, who quite honestly was the best character in THE PURGE. One part Alex DeLarge, another part Patrick Bateman, this guy was creepy as hell. And I wanted him in the film more. This guy was a pure psychopath, which made for a strong antagonist. I also liked one of the neighbors, Grace. She had such a sweet exterior, but there was something about her that you couldn't quite put your finger on. It's sad that I found the villains more interesting than the people I was supposed to care about.
There is some brutal violence in THE PURGE. Some of it we see on security video. During the last half of the film during the home invasion stuff, we get some good stuff as well. Most of it involves a shotgun and a knife. We also get some pool table violence, as well as a nose smashed into a table. There's some good blood in THE PURGE, but nothing really gory or anything. While I thought the home invasion was safe, at least the scenes involving this angle were quite good.
The direction by James DeMonaco was pretty good as well. There are some tense moments in THE PURGE during the last half of the film. I liked the lighting cues and some of the angles used. I thought the use of Tommy, which was Charlie's robot companion he had created, was cool and allowed a nice use of night vision. A lot of the framing and composition was very good as well. THE PURGE is a nice looking film and it has a very quick pace. I wish the film was actually longer so more things could be established and built up, but I honestly had no real issue with the visual presentation.
The acting was fine. Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey were very good as James and Mary Sandin. Hawke, in particular, has really been doing some good work in the genre recently. He's pretty gung ho during this film, doing whatever it takes to make his character work and the action scenes thrilling and fun to watch. He was kind of a bad ass in THE PURGE, which I liked. Headey was also good as the doting, yet concerned wife. Max Burkholder is a decent child actor as Charlie. I wish his guilt was played with more, but he did okay with the material. Adelaide Kane is cute and played the bratty Zoey well. Edwin Hodge did well as the Bloody Stranger. But Rhys Wakefield stole the show as the leader of the villains. That dude was creepy, especially when he smiled. I really enjoyed his performance.
THE FINAL HOWL
THE PURGE is a decent horror-thriller that I honestly expected more from. The acting was good, the direction was fine, and I really like the concept of the Purge itself. But the film went the safe route with the "home invasion" angle, which took away from what the film should have been about - The Purge. The film is too short at 85 minutes, because there needed to be more backstory, more explanation, and more moments spotlight this 12-hour event. It felt too rushed at times and should have had more exploration on the event, as well as the social commentary THE PURGE was trying to deliver. Maybe they're saving that for the sequel that's currently being developed, which would be the best route to take. Still, I had fun with the film on a visceral level and I'm happy it's doing really well at the box office. But at the end of the day, THE PURGE has a ton of potential that wasn't fulfilled all that much.