In 2022, the American government has come up with a solution for crime: The Purge. Once every year, for 12 hours, all crime is legal. You can murder, rape, assault and rob to your heart’s content and get a free pass. Government officials are protected, emergency services are shut down and the rest of the country lets it rip.
Wealthy Americans are usually safe from The Purge. They hide behind fancy security systems, sometimes throwing Purge Parties, and watch the mayhem unfold on live TV. News channels cover the violence, which is captured on a network of closed-circuit cameras.
Think of it as a nation-wide Hunger Games.
Strangely, The Purge seems to be working. Unemployment is at one percent, crime is at a record low and decent folk have the annual option of exorcising their demons. Targets of the Purge are usually the poor, homeless and minorities, but you can’t have everything.
The Sandin family doesn’t participate. Dad James (Ethan Hawke: Before Midnight) is a security systems salesman who believes in the benefits of The Purge. His wife Mary (Lena Headey: Game of Thrones) is a homemaker of the Donna Reed era, who cooks in stilettos, submits to her husband and demurs when her curious son asks why The Purge is necessary.
Preparing to spend a quiet night watching the murders and beatings on TV, the Sandins lock down their palatial home and set the table for family dinner. When a desperate man comes beating on their door, the adults ignore his pleas. But their softhearted son takes mercy, opening the door to the beaten black man.
Following the bloody stranger is a clique of preppy Purgers, decked out in blazers, waifish sundresses and doll masks. Their leader demands their victim or the Sandin family.
Where do the Sandins draw the moral line? Can they withstand a siege led by J. Crew models?
The Purge could have been an interesting political satire or a subversive black comedy. Instead writer/director James DeMonaco (Little New York) makes a dreadfully dull horror movie laden with stereotypes. It’s never clear whether The Purge is a commentary on class disparity, race relations, violence or religion. All are shoehorned in with ridiculous dialog and hammy acting.
Pretty white killers in doll masks have become a favorite villain for horror directors, but it may be time to retire the trope. It doesn’t help that the leader (Rhys Wakefield: Nobody Walks) confuses menace with unnecessary facial tics. When his female marauding companion can barely lift the machete she’s wielding and skips through halls in her flowing white gown, the image becomes farcical instead of fearsome. Who wears white to a slaughter? Her dry-cleaning bills must be astronomical.
Scares are rote, lots of people leaping from around corners and spurts of violence. But you never much care about either the family or the killers.
In full disclosure, other viewers found The Purge thrilling. A gaggle of teenage girls screamed, yelped and whispered oh my god, that’s creepy. I should have given them my $10; they were far more entertaining than the film.