In an America wracked by escalating crime and overcrowded prisons, the government has sanctioned an annual 12-hour period in which any and all criminal activity—including murder—becomes legal. On this night plagued by violence and an epidemic of crime, one family wrestles with the decision of who they will become when a stranger comes knocking.
“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” was the odd logic of the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre suggesting that to solve a gun problem, we need MORE OF THEM. Well, what if that good guy with a gun then becomes a bad guy? Or the bad guy is actually the good guy? Or – in between these Proppian characters – someone gets hurt? It definitely depends on context but who’s King Solomon in this situation?
The Purge is essentially what would happen if that logic was implemented and became a key tenet of society. Everyone has guns and are permitted to use them for one day without repercussions. It’s a government-sanctioned 12-hour period where everything is legal; murder, rape, theft, torture, fraud. Anything goes. All emergency services are suspended. Scientists on TV are saying the cathartic release of built-up anger and frustration is good for society and – as a result – crime rates are at an all-time low. It’s the saviour of America. And you certainly don’t need a background check on those guns, Mr. LaPierre.
The recent Woolwich attack has ensured a fairly low-key release for The Purge and, from the opening sequence, it’s clear to see why. Childlike melodies play over an opening montage of street brutality captured on CCTV footage from the purges of the past. It’s 2022 and this is a desensitized society where news anchors say things like “tonight the town will be painted red as Americans release the beast in record numbers” as if it’s going out to vote or another government-approved activity that would make you a good citizen. People hold purge parties and make purge plans, while others sharpen their weapons in their backyard.
In a horror film context, this is a fascinating concept with so many social and economic issues to explore; what effect does this 12-hour ‘anything goes’ period have on gender, race and class systems? Instead, the chosen conduit for this is a white, rich American family who ironically makes all their money through security systems to be used predominantly during purge time.
Ethan Hawke – with a facial expression that constantly switches between merciless and existential – is a father who activates his top-of-the-range security system to protect his wife, teenage daughter and young son during the purge. But when his son shows clemency by giving shelter to a homeless black man in need of help, a pursuing gang demands they return him to them – or else. So we end up with an unoriginal premise focusing on just how far will a man go to protect his wife and family.
Aside from Hawke, none of the characters are likeable, which is a problem when you’re supposed to be rooting for them to stay alive. The young villain (Rhys Wakefield) joins the queue of quickly-becoming-tired smiling sadistic roles based somewhere between Malcolm McDowell’s Alex from A Clockwork Orange and Heath Ledger’s Joker. He’s also not half as clever; he sets a deadline without giving a time, and cuts the lights but then expects the family to recover the homeless man IN THE DARK.
It’s also a siege situation we’ve seen before, most notably in Home Alone – though the feather and fan combo is replaced by a sawn-off shotgun and an axe attack to the back. And Macauley Culkin rarely raised questions around where the morals are in a society that allows free-for-all murder.
The plot becomes a messy amalgamation of two possible directions the story could go in, which results in a lack of attention to detail, poor character development and essentially two watered-down storylines. The Purge might’ve been something great but ultimately it was wasted. While the premise is strong, it’s the execution that lets the film down.