Plausibility informs any piece of good science fiction, which technically includes The Purge. Do we believe that this could happen, and – more importantly – that the characters we see would react the way they do? If you’ve got that, then chances are we’ll go along cheerfully for the ride. The Purge delivers that, and surprisingly a lot more, in an effective little thrill ride that dares to ask some really interesting questions.
Ostensibly, it’s a simple home invasion scenario, with a nice upper-middle-class family holed up in their security-laden domicile while a gang of creepy psychopaths stalks them outside. The twist comes in the circumstances: it’s the near future and the psychopaths are completely within their legal rights. As the ad campaign makes clear, all crime is legal for one night of the year. The annual “Purge” supposedly helps people get rid of their baser instincts, resulting in a safer and happier nation for the other 364 days of the year. Naturally, the poor, elderly and sick suffer the most since they can’t defend themselves as readily. But hey, the economy’s booming and everyone seem so much happier, right?
That undergirding turns what could have been a point-and-click thriller into something much more interesting, as we witness the Purge through the eyes of home security salesman James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) and his family. It’s been a boon for him, since demand for his product has gone through the roof. His quiet wife (Lena Headey) and thoughtful son (Max Burkholder) have more problems with the Purge, but generally keep silent, while his teenage daughter (Adelaide Kane) is more concerned with her forbidden romance to worry about what happens to other people on the darkest night of the year. They turn their home into Festung Suburbia by the time the warning siren blows, then settle in to what they hope will be an uneventful twelve hours. Fat chance.
Director James DeMonaco makes the scenario work on a nuts-and-bolts level by constantly throwing new twists at us. Some of them we can see coming, but others provide real spice for the otherwise straightforward thrills. He goes back to the same well a few times too many – with horrible violence averted at the last minute by timely intervention – which cuts down on the suspense as the film wears on. But every time we think it’s run out of ideas, DeMonaco finds a new way to mix things up. It works well enough to hold the film together for its sparse running time, with a thoroughly satisfying conclusion that fits the film’s themes perfectly.
And yeah, about those themes. Early critics seem to mistake “minimal” for “empty,” which deeply misunderstands what The Purge is trying to do. It wants us to sit with the ideas and ruminate on them: how we’d react in this situation, why people embrace this concept so eagerly, and what monstrosities arise when we think we have our id under control. It doesn’t gild the lily because it doesn’t need to; we have more than enough to probe at the deeper questions and come up with our own ideas without the film leading us around by the nose.
Had it gone on any longer, it might have overstayed its welcome. As it stands, however, it makes for a surprisingly intelligent thriller with a lot more on its mind than simply scaring us. Without its premise, it wouldn’t have much. With it, it has more than we might have expected. And as a colleague of mine brought up, the concept is sound enough to support a huge number of films like this. If The Purge does well, we may be seeing yearly entries in the franchise, and while they probably won’t win any awards, I’d be lying if I said that the prospect didn’t sound interesting.