- Written and Directed by James DeMonaco
- May 2, 2013 (Stanley Film Festival) / June 7, 2013 (United States)
A wealthy family must survive the one night every year when all crime is legal. When they harbor a homeless man that a group wishes to kill, the night whose horrors they have ignored come to their doorstep.
The Purge is a film that is more disturbing than it is frightening. Writer and director James DeMonaco sets up a world where for 12 hours once a year all crime is legal, and the inhabitants of that world treat it very casually. They have traditions like the display of blue Baptisia australis flowers as a symbol of private support for the Purge. That in and of itself is disturbing. Traditions for anarchy?
The film itself is a home invasion story as well as a bit of a social commentary and class allegory. There have been a few films over the years where a family has a scurried around their home when the bad guys show up and when it is obvious they are not going to survive they must fight back. This concept creates some visceral and intense scenes as well as keeping the budget down.
This movie also delves into social commentary. A few hints of what could come are dropped early in the film. The film focuses on a family, the Sandins, who live in a gated community in Los Angeles. They are friendly with their neighbors. The father James (Ethan Hawke) works for a security company that produces systems to protect the wealthy on Purge Night. While his neighbors have happily bought what he was selling, they have come to dislike him because of the money he made off of them. This little tidbit is hinted at when their neighbor Grace (Arija Bareikis) drops off a plate of cookies to James’s wife Mary (Lena Headey) and mentions the new addition to the Sandin home and how some feel it is showing off the family’s new wealth.
The class allegory comes in the form of a homeless man (Edwin Hodge) that sets events out of control for this family. The Sandin’s son Charlie (Max Burkholder), seeing him bloody and panicked, disengages the family security and lets him into their home as an act of mercy. The family presumably has been living in happy ignorance unaware of the plight of the poor who are disproportionately affected by the Purge. It is then we learn that the poor and homeless are targets for the wealthy and better armed.
After taking the man in, a group of young Purge participants show at the door lead by a coldly smiling gentleman (Rhys Wakefield). He demands that the man be sent outside or he and his friends will come in and get him and kill everybody inside. The character just comes off as so evil and disturbing right away whose only real action for much of the time is shooting his friend in the head because he would not be calm. That is bad but usually is not enough to create a truly frightening character. Polite Leader, as the credits refer to him, is one of the creepiest characters I have seen in quite some time.
Ethan Hawke tends to do smaller films. He is a great actor but he never does anything that would be mainstream or could become mainstream. At least not that often other than his recent joining of the upcoming Moon Knight series coming to Disney+. This and Daybreakers (which is a great twist on the vampire mythology) are the only two recent projects of his that I can think of that are considered/could be considered mainstream and backed by a significant studio. I would like to see him bring his considerable talent to more mainstream stuff to elevate it. There are more serviceable than talented acters doing that stuff today.
We have what could be seen as a fairly typical family existing in this near future world. It is nearer now. The daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane) has an attitude problem and a jerky boyfriend (Tony Oller). The son is a little bit of an oddball. And apparently the mom is a stay-at-home mother because dad is bringing in the big bucks selling security systems to everyone in the neighborhood. He might want to expand his client base.
The Sandins think of themselves as good people but as the story progresses they learn they are not as good as they would like to believe. Their easy and relatively problem free existence that helps separate them from the Purge prevents them from deep examination of themselves as well as any significant problems. By the end though they realize how far they have fallen and try to make the morally right decisions while also staying alive.
The youngsters at the door are not the Sandin’s only problem as I alluded to earlier. When they see the Sandin’s home breached, the jealous neighbors feeling that this family has been shoving their wealth in their faces decide to purge themselves and “cleanse their souls” and dispatch the young punks with cold efficiency. What looks as a save to the family though is these neighbors acting on impulse rather than with a plan that failed to factor anything in. What saves the family is this homeless man that they at one point were going to turn over just to save themselves.
The Purge is a low budget film that exceeds the sum of its parts. Events occur in a rather small setting. The cast is relatively small. A great deal of the action occurs in the dark. Usually that is a sign of a bad film, but it all works together and creates something special. What should have been a poorly scripted and shoddily directed film was neither. It had plausible characters and solid direction.
The Purge is definitely not a film for everyone, but it is a film for those who can stomach stories about baser human reactions. I will give this an if you want but an if you want that you should want.