We all have traditions that we look forward to each year: Christmas, Mothers Day, birthdays, opening day of the baseball season, the Purge. Well, at least that’s how it is in 2022 America. What is the Purge you ask? It’s an annual 12 hour government sanctioned period where all crime (murder, rape, anything) is legal. This cathartic release of personal angst and pent up emotion is said to be the reason for the low poverty levels and crime rates. Perfectly reasonable thinking, right?
The yearly Purge is the centerpiece for this horror/thriller written and directed by James DeMonaco. Therefore your ability to buy into it will undoubtedly effect your perception of the film. Personally I found the central conceit to be absurd and while I tried to backburner it I never could quite get over the nuttiness of the idea. I’ll admit there was a slight draw to the concept and if DeMonaco had spent time developing a background it may have been intriguing. Instead it comes across as a gimmick for some typical bloody violence mixed with a sloppy and heavy-handed political statement.
In terms of story, James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) and his family live in an upper class Los Angeles suburb. James made his fortune exploiting the Purge by selling high priced security systems. The film starts mere hours before the Purge is set to begin. Sandin arrives at his lavish home, wishes his neighbors a “safe night”, has dinner with his family, and prepares to lock down his fortress for the next 12 hours. But obviously they don’t spend a quite uneventful night in their home. A series of events, regardless of how random and illogical, turn their night upside down and they find out they aren’t as secure as they thought.
“The Purge” seems to be constantly straining to generate tension and scares. Most of its horror devices are taken from a number of different movies you’ve seen before. Now and then they turn out to be effective. For example later in the film a group of masked preppies show up and terrorize the Sandins. It’s something that will be very familiar to horror fans and the group plays into the tactless class warfare statement the film is preaching. Yet I’ll admit I found them to be very creepy at times.
But there are also moments where DeMonaco’s direction completely undermines the scene. There’s a sequence where James and his wife Mary (Lena Headey) are searching for a man in their darkened house. The scene features the routine shadowed hallways, flashlights, and sudden mysterious sounds. This might have been effective except for the fact that DeMonaco already revealed that the man is hiding in a closet. Therefore these designed scare scenes have absolutely no effect. There are several clumsy missed opportunities like this that pop up throughout the picture.
The film has other flaws including a fairly predictable outcome and random nonsensical behavior from some of the characters. But despite these gripes, “The Purge” is never boring and it does create some frights and intensity that works. It doesn’t do enough to cover the silliness of its main concept and there isn’t an ounce of subtlety with DeMonaco’s political preachiness. I think there is a pretty intriguing movie here somewhere, but the glaring problems restrict it to being a middle-of-the-road and ultimately forgettable experience.