It’s the near future, 2022 to be precise, and a new totalitarian government called the New Founding Fathers of America is in charge of the United States. Their answer to the problems of living in a near future USA is to create ‘The Purge’. For one night a year, the emergency services are suspended and all crime is legal, leaving the populace to rape, pillage, and murder their weasely black guts out. Ah what joyous catharsis! So some people roam the streets, or settle personal vendettas, but most turn their homes into Fort Knox and hunker down for the night.
Apparently this thinly veiled attempt at population control has helped to reduce crime and unemployment to 1%, and the economy is doing very well to boot. Up till now it’s been an interesting premise but this is the point where I part ways with The Purge and its strange vision. Any audience member with a thread of intelligence is also likely to follow suit as a brief examination of this claimed figure seems entirely absurd. You’re telling me that allowing everyone a single night of law-breaking and murder is enough to satiate them for a full year? I’m sorry but I know what people are like and I’m not buying it. I’m just not buying it.
Having failed to pull me in with its outlandish premise, what can The Purge offer instead? A brooding horror where the darkest recesses of the human psyche are explored? Nope. Well what about a tense and thrilling home-invasion story? Not really. This latter path is where the film goes whilst only hinting back to the former idea ever so briefly. The plot follows home security salesman James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) and his family through the night after his young son makes the snap decision to allow a complete stranger sanctuary in their home. Turns out there’s a group of mask-wearing well-spoken nutjobs who are after him because he happens to be their purge target this year.
What follows is the kind of idiotic decision-making that is prevalent in the lowest quality horror films. The nutjobs threaten to slaughter the family if they don’t hand over their new house guest, cue the Sandins choosing to air their familial grievances all at once resulting in a real mess. It’s not even enjoyable to see the pent-up family drama play out under these extreme pressure circumstances because the family members aren’t particularly interesting. The film only starts to pick up in its very last moments when it turns from hum-drum horror into more of a thriller, but it merely serves as a hint at what the film could have been.
Putting the outlandish statistics aside, there is some potential for an interesting, perhaps even satirical film in this one-night-of-crime set up. The avenue of social commentary could’ve be explored by following a group of neighbours who seem to be all chummy on the surface but are hiding aggression towards each other bubbling just beneath the surface. And what of this mysterious government, surely any party that encourages one night of wanton destruction must have some links to the infamous NRA? The Purge could have been daring but it’s disappointingly safe.
It’s frustrating to see these ideas left untouched with the film-makers opting for a standard home invasion film with little in the way of originality or flare. Neither horrific nor thrilling, it’s these kind of half-hearted efforts that should be purged from the cinematic canon…along with that terrible joke.