Review: ‘The Purge’ Aims to Entertain and Just Barely Succeeds

By  · Published on June 7th, 2013

As with most things in life, there are good trailers and there are bad trailers. Bad trailers may lay out the entire film third act or not do a good job of selling you on the film, while a good trailer often teases just the right amount of a story to get you hooked and ready for more. The trailer for The Purge fell pretty firmly in the good category, explaining the outlandish future-set premise and teasing a home invasion storyline. It was up to the film to deliver on the promise of a fun, entertaining film, but unlike the trailer before it, it didn’t do a great job.

The premise is certainly interesting. Set in 2022, America is “a nation reborn,” words you will hear throughout the film. Unemployment and crime are at all time lows thanks to a new government program called the Purge. For one night a year, from 7pm to 7am the next morning, all crime is legal. Police, fire and emergency medical services are suspended during this time and anything goes. For James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) and his family, the Purge has been a pathway to prosperity. James makes a shit-ton of money selling fancy, very secure looking security systems to wealthy homeowners (including many of his neighbors) to protect themselves during the annual Purge. His wife Mary (Lena Headey) is nice enough but seems to have a little more edge than the typical soccer mom, though perhaps that’s Headey and her history of playing strong women more so than the character herself. They have two children, Charlie and Zoe, and while the former is a bit of a tech geek and loner his older sister is on the hot seat for dating an 18 year old named Henry.

The family gathers for the commencement of the Purge and, as always, they arm their fancy security system. Unbeknownst to anyone though Henry has snuck into the house before lockdown to confront James about dating his daughter. Around the same time, Charlie’s preteen conscience gets the best of him when he notices a man running down the road outside the house clearly wounded and calling out for help. Realizing that no one else will help this man on this night, Charlie disarms the security system and lets him in. But the people hunting this man will do whatever it takes to get him, including breaking into the Sandin’s home and killing the family if they harbor their target.

The group banging on the Sandin’s door is lead by a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Aryan posterchild in a blue blazer complete with some kind of crest on the jacket pocket. His menace and brutality are completely undermined by his wild dialogue and odd demeanor. We know that he’s meant to be scary, as he swiftly kills one of his compatriots for being rude to Mr. Sandin. And yet, his penchant for speaking like he’s in a Shakespeare play and smiling broadly make him seem more like a cartoon villain. It completely defangs him and drains any tension you may have watching his group attempt to enter the Sandin home. The rest of the group is exactly the same way, dancing around like school children despite the lethal weapons they each carry. They almost seem like a group of Satanists in a ’70s film, giggling as they sacrifice you. It’s a strange mixed tone and it does nothing to help the film.

Hawke and Headey do fine work as the parents. Hawke seems to excel in roles where he struggles with compromising his morals. His character in Sinister is similar. He manages to remain pretty likable despite a certain huckster quality, and it’s easy to find yourself rooting for him. Headey has that tough-as-nails steel resolve here that’s worked so well for her over the years. It takes a bit for these aspects of her character to show themselves, but when they do, she’s in true badass form that’s fun to watch.

The Purge itself leads to all sorts of questions. Do people really have the patience to wait 364 days to release their anger and hatred? Will they really contain themselves to a 12 hour period? What about those who can’t afford security? While these and many other questions may be posed by the premise, the film only marginally addresses them, mostly just acknowledging that the questions exist. In fact, the middle class doesn’t even really exist in the film’s world. There seem to be only the rich and the poor. The group’s leader even refers to Mr. Sandin as “one of the haves” referencing a black and white world of haves and have nots. Interestingly though, as the story progresses the morality of the Purge becomes more of a focus. Is it right just because it’s legal? Is it OK because others are doing it? Or should people have their own moral code that they stick to regardless of society? It seems like these are the questions the film is more interested in.

That’s not to say that the film is super thoughtful or cerebral. At heart, this is a standard genre flick complete with villains in creepy masks, dark hallways and jump scares. If you’re paying even mild attention, you’ll see most of the events coming several scenes before they occur. There are few surprises here. While the moral implications are borne out in plot points in the second and third act, it’s not trying to be a think piece. It’s more simple in its basic aim to entertain, but sadly it’s not terribly successful in that regard. It’s a perfectly diverting 85 minutes, but no more. It holds your attention while you’re in your seat, but will likely be forgotten by the time you hit the parking lot.

The Upside: The cast does a decent job, technically sound, raises some interesting moral questions

The Downside: Predictable, tonally strange antagonists, only mildly entertaining to watch

On the Side: Writer/Director James DeMonaco also wrote the Robin Williams film Jack.