The best science fiction and horror stories are those which are not actually about what they are about. Written and directed by James DeMonaco, The Purge is being marketed as a violent home invasion shocker, but is more genuinely a slow burning social commentary which makes no attempt to hide a scathing appraisal of modern American values.
James Sandin is a successful home security salesman, who having completed another year as top of his team arrives in his expensive car at his beautiful home with its recently built extension, the envy of the neighbourhood. His wife Mary has been speaking to their neighbours, all of whom have purchased security systems from James, and now she prepares dinner (“Not one carbohydrate!”) to be shared with their two children, Zoey and Charlie, before the whole family seals themselves behind armoured doors to wait out The Purge.
It is the year 2022, and with unemployment at 1% and crime at an all time low, the country is prospering, but there is a cost. Once a year, for the twelve hours between dusk on March 21st and dawn on March 22nd, all emergency services are suspended, the security of law and order is lifted, and, with specific exceptions, all crime is permitted.
James and Mary approve of The Purge, as evidenced by the symbolic bouquet of blue flowers they display on their front porch, but do not participate, believing their lives to be balanced and secure, praising the choices the New Founding Fathers made (“You don’t remember how bad it was, the poverty, the crime; this night saved our country”) while avoiding deeper discussion of the issues raised by the commentary on the news feed, that The Purge is a legitimised elimination of “the poor, the needy, the sick, the non-contributing members of society.”
Some host purge parties, watching the live news feeds from downtown where vandalism, looting and murder take place, while others arm themselves to indulge their needs more directly, but the Sandins regard themselves as safe in their affluent neighbourhood until that illusion is shattered when Charlie momentarily deactivates the security systems to allow an injured man to enter the house. Hypothetical arguments of morality and responsibility become increasingly urgent as a group of masked hunters surround the house, claiming the man for themselves, “a dirty homeless pig who had the audacity to fight back.”
It is no accident that the overwhelming majority of the cast are white, the lone prominent black face the wounded intruder who has concealed himself in the Sandin mansion, nor that the pursuers who claim his life as their prize boast of their resources and education. While it is made clear that the disposable poor who are unable to fortify their homes, what is not specified in dialogue but is indicated is that the intended victim is a war veteran, his dog tags glimpsed in one scene.
It is admitted that there are necessary contrivances within the premise, but the narrative occasionally requires extreme irresponsibility and stupidity from the children, and the question of why there is no second line of defence within the house or plan of action in the event of a breach are irksome, though the film manages to embody surprisingly few of the compromises which would render it a more obviously commercial prospect.
Though there is violence, it takes a long time to arrive, and when it does it is neither glamorised nor stylised, the confrontations built up with dread, nor are any of the family morally superior or offered redemption for previous bad choices through their actions in the film. There is drama for all, but there is no comfort for none.
There are glimmers of The Wicker Man in the ritual aspects of the hunt and the flowing dresses of the women, though the blonde hair and perfect smiles that mask the corruption behind the designer living speak more of Stepford than remote Scottish island communities, and other obvious touchstones are Landru’s “Red Hour” witnessed by the crew of the USS Enterprise in The Return of the Archons or Michael Haneke’s audience provocation exercise Funny Games.
Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey are dependable performers in the lead roles, though while Hawke is allowed to question and change his convictions, Headey is given little to do other than cower in the darkness for much of the film. While the film has a point to make, with a running time of 85 minutes it does not labour it to the point of blunting it, and this alone sets it above the majority of output from a producer best known for the wretchedly endless and endlessly wretched Paranormal Activity films.