A haunting, effective and supremely timely horror film, The Purge accomplishes a lot as both social allegory and efficient thriller. The 2013 movie is written and directed by James DeMonaco, with cinematography by Jacques Jouffret.
As parables go, it’s tempting to suggest that The Purge is a little extreme. But considering some embryonic mainstream American attitudes toward the homeless, disenfranchised, immigrants, and any other “problem citizens,” it’s perhaps more honest to think of the suggestions of the film as an eerie push just a few steps along current lines.
The year is 2022 and American society takes part in an annual civic tradition known as “the Purge.” This event takes place for 12 hours and renders all criminal activity legal. There are some regulations about what political figures are protected and what weapons are off-limits, of course. The Sandin family, including father James (Ethan Hawke) and mother Mary (Lena Headey), is the access point.
James sells security systems, so he’s made out well in the years of the Purge. He locks his wife, son Charlie (Max Burkholder) and daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane) in their mansion and hopes to ride out the wave. Unfortunately, a lot goes wrong. Charlie invites a wounded man (Edwin Hodge) into the house and a gang of young people bent on killing him arrive to take what they want.
The Purge gets in and out in under an hour and a half, so there’s a certain degree of proficiency to the filmmaking that eschews long periods of exposition for standard thriller material. That’s not a bad thing, as it keeps the focus on how society works viscerally. It explores the activity of the Purge more than it explores the historical framework.
At the same time, there are sufficient details. James and Mary try to rationalize the Purge to their children. Charlie’s been learning about it in school and he wants to know why his parents don’t participate, even if they do support it by laying out blue flowers and profiting directly from mass un-murder.
And the details are interesting, like how the Purge is considered largely a success because American society has moved the goalposts on its problems. The act targets those who can’t protect themselves on Purge night, which in turn confirms hell for the disadvantaged, the sick, the needy. Considering how many societal ills are routinely hung on the lower classes and the Great Unwashed, the sentiment rings.
But the youngest, played crisply by Kane and Burkholder, recognize the sins. As much as James and Mary and the rest of the adult world try to justify the Purge because it works, Zoey and Charlie are still struggling to find what it means to be human. They’re trying to remember a history before the Purge, a history they weren’t part of.
In effect, The Purge is about social sins more than it’s about imagining a hellacious remedy. It’s about the use of an extreme fable to suss out questions about how one of the richest countries in the world treats the “have-nots” and about how much power that society is willing to grant the “haves” under the illusion of the greater good. These questions lie behind the headlines. They almost always do.
As a horror picture, The Purge manages some effective moments. But it also pushes beyond characteristic bump-in-the-night chills to something more horrifying. On the surface, its near-satire may seem to suggest where society could go. But beneath the masks and gunfire and darkness, it’s more likely asking questions about where society already is.