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‘The Purge’ too preposterous to hit hard, but mercifully brief

‘The Purge’ too preposterous to hit hard, but mercifully brief

the purge poster

The Purge

Directed by James DeMonaco

Written by James DeMonaco

USA, France, and Belgium, 2013

If Ray Bradbury was alive now and willing to half-ass the execution of a fairly novel concept, he might’ve written The Purge. Here is a movie with an easy-to-parse core that makes less sense with each passing second, if only because the world of the film, on a grand scale, does not exist. The question at the center of The Purge is morbidly fascinating—what if crime was legal across the United States for one 12-hour period every year?—but at least in this vision, it chooses to sidestep logic and world-building, and buckles under the weight of such slight storytelling.

The year is 2022 and unemployment is down to a mere 1 percent in the U.S., thanks in no small part to The Purge, a 12-hour window each year when everyone is permitted to commit any crime they want, even murder; as long as they don’t touch the highest-ranking government officials during this time, people can do as they please. The Purge is the bulwark of America’s new prosperity, as evidenced by our hero, James (Ethan Hawke) a security-system salesman who now lives in a shiny McMansion with his doting wife (Lena Headey), rebellious daughter (Adelaide Kane), and twitchy son (Max Burkholder). They intend on locking down during The Purge, but when James’ son takes pity on and lets in a homeless man (Edwin Hodge), attempting to run from a group of particularly sociopathic rich kids, the familial quartet is forced to fight for their survival.


The Purge, written and directed by James DeMonaco, is a haphazardly shaken cocktail of genre, with a splash of horror here—the cartoonishly psychotic villains wear masks a la the baddies in the recent home-invasion thriller The Strangers—a dash of action there, and a bit of alternate-universe science-fiction to round out the bouquet of flavors. And at a surprisingly compact 85 minutes, this is a film that’s wise enough to embrace brevity. The problem is, it’s not brief enough to elude any attempts to grasp at the universe being created here. Outside of the first few minutes, pretty much all of The Purge takes place inside this mansion, so it’s hard to know what the rest of the world, or even the rest of the country, is like outside of a smattering of faux news-show footage. Those who run the United States, those who took over and instituted The Purge, are apparently treated almost like deities, at least by the childlishly insane villains, but who are they? What little information is doled out is about as subtle as a jackhammer: the homeless man is dubbed a swine by the lead villain, who calls himself a “have.” Unemployment is down presumably because the jobless are fewer, as they’re among the many who die during a yearly Purge. But there’s far too many leaps to make, so wondering about this world and its trappings means there’s barely any time to focus on the main group of characters.

Hawke is ostensibly the lead, but each family member ends up taking center stage often enough that there’s not really one protagonist. Regarding Headey, it’s hard not to compare her fairly standard-issue passive-housewife role here to the commanding performance she gives weekly on the excellent HBO drama Game of Thrones. Considering that show, and her work as Cersei Lannister, is likely one of the reasons she got this role, it’d be nice if Headey was given a stronger part, one that felt far less familiar and rote. Frankly, the only actor who makes waves in The Purge is Rhys Wakefield, as the outrageously cruel leader of the masked marauders, the “Polite Stranger,” so listed in the end credits. Wakefield is given outrageously flowery dialogue to deliver, but that crutch aside, he’s legitimately disturbing in his constant shifts from furious to friendly. If the rest of the movie had as much personality as he did, maybe the entire affair would be equally enjoyable.


Maybe that’s the real problem with The Purge: it lacks a sparkling personality. The tone here is far too self-serious—any dark laughs to be wrung from a fairly brutal torture scene, as Hawke admonishes his victim that they’re making it way too difficult on themselves, don’t seem intentional—except for when Wakefield saunters on screen. The Purge needed more thought and vitality to be a captivating thriller of sorts. Ethan Hawke can be an arresting screen presence, even in horror movies, such as last year’s Sinister, a nasty piece of work, to say the least. The Purge should be equally nasty, considering how unnerving its premise may sound. Instead, this film chooses to be preposterous; each twist, each jump scare, each surprise only serves to emphasize how silly this fantastical world is.

— Josh Spiegel