Set in 2022, "The Purge" takes place in an America where, thanks to the "New Founding Fathers," the authorities officially look the other way for an annual 12-hour period as its citizens are encouraged to "release the beast" in the interest of curbing violent crime the rest of the year. Or in other words, it's society's ultimate cheat day. It's also good business for a home security system salesman like James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) and his family. That is, until the Sandins give refuge to a man (Edwin Hodge) on the run from a group of masked machete-wielding revelers and become the group's new targets.
And since the movie's cautionary tagline of "Survive the night" could just as easily apply to sitting through the uneven thriller, I put together the following survival guide to help you make it through "The Purge." Ignore it at your own risk.
Know what you're getting into.
Writer/director James DeMonaco clearly hit on an interesting idea with "The Purge," with its premise of a government-sanctioned night of anything-goes violence. But it's also something of a bait-and-switch, because despite the veneer of cynical social commentary, the movie ultimately ends up becoming just another generic home invasion thriller, only with a more convoluted reason for why no one's coming to help the Sandins.
And sure, the opening act sets up a few intriguing themes: violence's place in society, literal class warfare, how far you'd go to save your family. Movies like "Straw Dogs" and "A Clockwork Orange" became classics by exploring similar ideas. But just stating themes isn't enough. You have to, you know, actually go somewhere with them. And much like its handling of the high-concept premise, "The Purge" seems satisfied with simply tossing the idea of those concepts out there, then ignoring them to get back down to business: terrorizing the Sandins. But hey, don't those masks look creepy?
Throw things like reason and logic out the window.
Then you might as well board that window up, because if you want to make it through "The Purge," you need to accept the fact that neither are ever getting back in. It's one thing to ask audiences to suspend their disbelief, especially in a movie with a speculative premise like this. It's another to ask them to accept the fact that major characters act irrationally and disappear for long stretches not because it makes any sense, but because it's more convenient for the movie to keep tensions high by having everyone constantly looking for one another in a dark house. And eventually, the plot simply devolves into random people popping up to either harm or save the Sandins at regular intervals. The hope is that you'll be so wound up you won't notice things like the bad guys being able to pull down giant steel barricades on every door and window in the house all at once with what appears to be one truck and a magical set of chains. Maybe that's why the neighbors are so passive-aggressive about those purge security systems James sold them.
Don't get too attached to anyone.
Fortunately, this probably won't be much of an issue, because none of the characters are developed enough to become cause for concern. Really, the Sandins are just a blank slate nuclear family for us to project our anxieties onto. And so the only thing we really know about Mary (Lena Headey) is that she's capable of making a dinner without a single carb, while Hawke's James is a salesman that can apparently flip a switch and turn into Rambo for a few minutes. The kids aren't given much more in the way of character development either, unless you count their impressive ability to make terrible decisions. Even the film's main villain (Rhys Wakefield), a preppy blonde kid wearing a blazer and a seriously unsettling smile, is barely given enough screen time to register. The cast all do their best, but it's a losing proposition.
Take deep breaths.
Where "The Purge" does work though is as a thriller, once you get past all the irrational characters making questionable (at best) choices, that is. Because what DeMonaco's film lacks in plot it makes up for in tension. With most of the movie taking place in a darkened house, the director uses that to his advantage, though it's far more effective when he's making us squirm uncomfortably by showing the would-be purgers silently stalking their prey than spooking us with sudden shocks. And when the action ratchets up in the third act, it gives the audience something to cheer about, even if we're ostensibly supposed to be reexamining our bloodlust.
It's only 85 minutes.
Even after the movie goes off the rails though, just remember: much like the purge itself, there is an end in sight. And the film's sub-90 minute runtime ensures that the terror doesn't drag on for very long. Of course, because of this, it feels oddly hacked up in parts, with potential character development dropped for the sake of a quicker pace. Still, "The Purge" certainly won't be an endurance test, even if it tests your patience in other ways.
"The Purge" opens on June 7.