Purge is a mixed bag

The Purge has elicited mixed reactions from critics, who either love it or hate it, and that’s because there are a lot of reasons to do both.

The film is set 10 years in the future. The U.S. has begun holding an annual purge, a 12-hour period during which emergency services and criminal law are suspended. Anything goes, even murder. Everyone in the film makes sure to include that phrase, “even murder,” when explaining this, because murder is all anyone seems to do. It stands to reason that if the purge is about letting out aggression, there would be much more sadism than that. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I like torture and rape sequences — we’ll get to the clusterbomb of conceptual problems in a minute.

The movie itself follows the Sandin family through one of these purges. James (Ethan Hawke) is in home security, an industry that has boomed since the purge became law. He lives with his wife (Lena Headey) and children (Max Burkholder, Adelaide Kane) in a wealthy, suburban neighborhood. The Sandins were sitting pretty until Charlie (Burkholder) drops security to let in a fleeing, bloodied stranger (Edwin Hodge), and the house comes under siege by the pack of college students that was after him.


The Purge is a thoroughly mixed bag. Writer/director James DeMonaco’s script has a clever enough concept, but is filled with laughable dialogue. The cast, with the exception of Rhys Whitfield, who plays the murderous pack’s polite leader, is tilting at windmills trying to perform these lines well. The plot has the same issue — most of it is just fine, but every now and then Zoey (Kane) will vanish for no apparent reason. The film’s pacing will seem like it’s a problem sometimes and be pitch perfect at others.

The good and bad aspects of these basic factors mix with the good and bad aspects of the film’s concept to produce twisting layers of good and bad cinema. Outside of a few really bad lines, The Purge is never really one or the other at any point. It’s always both.

Its social commentary is heavy-handed, and that’s both good and bad. Multiple talking heads suggest the post-purge economic boom (crime and unemployment rates are at an all-time low) is simply because all the poor people get killed off during the purge. If we kill everyone who doesn’t have a job once a year, of course unemployment will drop. The film equates the American homeless’ plight with murder. The leader’s constant vomit of elitism and the stranger’s dog tags and race add great depth here.

The film’s other primary theme is that complacency is just as harmful as active participation. Throughout the film, the Sandins repeatedly attempt to hide themselves and ignore the purge, and they are repeatedly forced to face it head-on. The problem is, literally and figuratively, at their doorstep, pulling down the expensive steel walls that make looking the other way an option for the family. For a film as preachy as The Purge is, it has a very rich subtext. Hitchcockian house level mechanics are used to superb effect, also.

Unfortunately, while rejecting the premise is a cardinal sin, this movie is just too hard to keep up with. The economic boom is attributed solely to the purge’s introduction, suggesting that all of society’s problems (and specifically all crime) is simply due to pent-up aggression.

The fact that murder is all that goes on raises some questions. What happened to our rape epidemic? If humans are so sadistic that we need a purge to keep us in line, why is this most sadistic and already common crime completely absent during said purge? Why aren’t any banks robbed? If they are, why is the economy so stable? What happened to the drug trade? Was that whole thing just due to pent-up aggression? How come nobody can hear anything, even gunfire, that happens in another room?

Ultimately, the poor dialogue, plot holes and gaping conceptual flaws win out for me, but The Purge is still a poignant and enjoyable movie.

Crazy fan theory– if you’ve seen it and are having trouble, pretend that Zoey died in a previous purge and is a ghost, and that’s why she keeps vanishing for no reason. The filmmakers probably didn’t intend this, but it makes the movie a lot better.

Joshua Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist, journalism and film student at the University of North Texas and a staff writer for the NT Daily. He thinks Thomas Hobbes is an absolute tool. For questions, rebuttals and further guidance about cinema, you can reach him at reelentropy@gmail.com. At this point, I’d like to remind you that you shouldn’t actually go to movies and form your own opinions. That’s what I’m here for. Be sure to come back next week for a review of Man of Steel.

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3 Responses to Purge is a mixed bag

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