Crime’s hit an all-time low in The Purge, but the neighbors of James Sandin (Ethan Hawke, “Sinister”) are still scrambling for one of his signature security systems, which promises to turn any home into an impenetrable fortress. That’s because, to keep these rates so minimal, the United States has instituted the annual “Purge,” a 12-hour time period during which all crime — including murder — is legalized and emergency services are temporarily suspended. As any American with the vision and ability would, Sandin has capitalized on the fear to survive each year so by 2022, his entrepreneurship has earned him, his wife Mary (Lena Headey, “Dredd”), and their two children Charlie and Zoey (Max Burkholder and Adelaide Kane, respectively) a beautiful mansion in a gated community. Safeguarded by his own product (and an arsenal of weapons in the home’s control room), the family prepares a quiet night indoors as their fellow Americans are given the chance to cleanse their negativity in any way they desire. However, that peace is disrupted when their son, in protest of the event, breaks lockdown to let an injured man retreat into their home, attracting a murderous mob that’s marked him as prey.
As an actor, Hawke’s always great at humanizing his roles. Despite writer/director James DeMonaco’s thin script, his performance in The Purge is not only likable, but also perfectly subtle in how it approaches Sandin’s morality. This is especially important considering Sandin’s status as a “one-percenter” — essentially the film’s chief antagonists. Although he made his fortune on the bloodshed, the desire to protect his family is a characteristic that’ll surely resonant amongst audiences. He never goes over-the-top or laments the situation, rather giving into his parental instincts completely. Primal impulse is what The Purge is really about and Hawke’s unhinged presence creates a realistic tension; unfortunately, DeMonaco puts too much focus on his satire of economic status.
Ignoring the concept’s faultiness, the idea of crime-as-catharsis is handled carelessly in The Purge. Right down to his crisp uniform, the clean-cut Polite Stranger (Rhys Wakefield, “Sanctum”), leader of the cultists, becomes an overbearing caricature of class righteousness. Taking class warfare literally, he leads his faction of snotty rich kids under the objective of sport-hunting the disadvantaged. While the wealthy are cocooned inside the mansions Sandin helped secure, it’s the poor who’re really exposed to the Purge’s mayhem. Speaking for the majority, The Polite Stranger rationalizes his actions by calling them “necessary tributes” in the struggle to maintain an orderly society. In actuality, they’re just targets in his psychopathic castigation. As Sardin proves himself a sympathizer for the defenseless, he becomes a traitor in the eyes of the privileged. This could’ve been an interesting dynamic, but instead the script is content with a couple of hammy monologues and cuts straight to the violence.
Surprisingly, the violence isn’t as brutal as it could’ve been; it actually takes a fair amount of patience to appreciate. Within seconds of the psychopath’s invasion, power is cut inside the Sandin household, and DeMonaco does a great job maneuvering around this claustrophobic darkness. For the most part, the siege is nicely choreographed and genuinely thrilling, but that excitement dims out towards the third act. Nearing its conclusion, the film’s predictability becomes apparent and, without a truly menacing villain, this game of cat-and-mouse grows tiresome.
Ultimately, The Purge never reaches its full potential. Without memorable supporting characters or much meat on its B-movie premise, the social commentary does little to enlighten. Even as a throwaway blockbuster it barely makes its bid for matinee glory. But, if nothing else, this dystopian horror does give the less patriotic yet another reason to pack their bags for Canada.