Blumhouse Productions – perhaps you’ve heard of them – makes so-called “microbudget” movies and turns them into blockbusters. The films never cost more than $5 million (a number that only seems “micro” in this business we call “show”), and they usually exploit their low-rent aesthetic to create an atmosphere of plausibility before something fantastic happens and screws up the modern family unit. The Paranormal Activity movies by-and-large use the supernatural as a metaphor for internal family strife, like not listening to your girlfriend or keeping secrets from your spouse. The Purge is no different, except that it is quite different indeed.
The Purge takes place not in a real world invaded by the horrific, but a horrific world that has become passé to its heroes, the Sandin family, who only experience true terror when “reality” comes a-knocking. The Sandins – played by Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Adelaide Kane and Max Burkholder – are an affluent white family living in a gated community. In fact, they gated the community themselves. James Sandin (Hawke) sells security systems that protect well-to-do households from “The Purge,” a yearly ritual that allows every American citizen to commit any crime they want for twelve straight hours.
There’s a practical benefit to “The Purge” – violent crime, for example, is nearly non-existent 364 days out of the year, since why wouldn’t you wait until you could get away with it? – but also an inherent ugliness. The first third of The Purge takes place the evening before the yearly festivities, as the Sandins lock their doors and regard their neighbors sharpening machetes with vague interest before sitting down to a nice meal and talking about their day. This is the creepiest and best part about The Purge: the way it illustrates the complacency of otherwise decent people who just happen to benefit from the suffering of others. That, and its presentation of a world in which the darkest impulses of humanity can be revealed without fear of reprisals.
That build up – with the Sandins making nice with their neighbors, and everyone knowing what can and will happen in just a few short hours – is a tightly ratcheted machine of tension that eventually comes unsprung when the youngest Sandin, Charlie (Burkholder), decides to give shelter to a homeless man (Edwin Hodge) running from preppy maniacs wearing spooky masks. Why do they wear spooky masks, when everything they do is perfectly legal? It’s ceremonial perhaps, or a subversion of classic slasher conventions; where those movies treated “purging” as society’s greatest evil, the youth of The Purge are encouraged to indulge in that exact same behavior, and as such wear the masks in order to “take it back.” Or perhaps it’s just a good way to hide a limited number of stuntpersons.
They need those stuntpersons, because The Purge ultimately segues into an extended home invasion thriller with the Sandins – now forced to participate in “The Purge” whether they like it or not – fighting off a small army of maniacs. It’s interesting to see a version of a siege story that doesn’t rely on the hope of a last minute cavalry charge. The police are taking the night off. The police might even be the ones killing the Sandin family.
But while The Purge raises interesting moral questions with real-world relevance (that no one in the film compares this situation to Nazi Germany is a model of restraint), it doesn’t quite emerge as a thoughtful thriller. By the time the action picks up and Ethan Hawke starts shotgunning faceless murderers left and right, the inventiveness of The Purge’s first half falls away into a series of familiar fights and last minute reversals. It’s easy to lose count of how many times one of our heroes gets saved at the last minute in the same repetitive fashion, by someone the killer didn't know was behind them.
Fortunately, the cast is involved enough that we care about their characters, so although The Purge fails to live up to its potential it also never entirely disappoints. It’s a more judgmental thriller than we are perhaps used to, and its despair for the human condition lingers long after the action-thriller clichés are (quickly) forgotten. The heroes are in no way heroes, and the villains are perhaps especially pathetic for accepting any excuse to be cruel. Is the human race intrinsically vile, and only barely kept in check by arbitrary rules and regulations that demand we act civil? The Purge says “yes,” and its philosophy is unnerving enough to elevate a by-the-numbers home invasion flick into something worthy of greater attention: an eerie modern fable with a genuinely challenging moral.