If you aren't inherently curious about social experiment film THE PURGE just from the premise, actually seeing the film may not make you any more interested in it. I, for one, was fascinated by the concept. The political nature of the United States has become so overrun by religious groups and social conservatives, that one 12-hour period per year has been set aside for a pure, brutal lawlessness called "the Purge," during which all crime is legal, including murder. Why is this a socially slanted practice? Because the richer folks can afford to have high-end security systems installed to keep out all intruders, while the have-nots have to fend for themselves behind a simple locked door.
One of the fine citizens selling security systems is James Sandin (Ethan Hawke). In fact, he's the best in the region at selling the things, and we find out early on that a few of his neighbors resent the fact that he profits from their fear. His wife Mary (Lena Headey) is even mocked openly for a new extension on her house, paid for by said cash. All this pent-up hostility is exactly why the Purge is necessarily, say its supporters. We're told crime has been nearly eradicated since it was implemented. It's like the occasional bout of binge drinking.
The Sandin's live with their two kids, Charlie and Zoey (Max Burkholder and Adelaide Kane), both of whom have substantial morality issues with the Purge, and as most change in America, it's the younger generation that is already doubting societal injustices. So the Purge begins, the family locks down and goes about its business as best they can, and then somebody comes knocking on their door, bloody and terrified. He appears to be a homeless man being chased, and he's looking for safe haven. Then Charlie opens the security gates, and all hell breaks loose.
Writer-director James DeMonaco (probably best known for writing the screenplays for other siege-related films, the remake of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 and THE NEGOTIATOR) has crafted a smart b-movie that never allows its cameras to leave the house once the Purge begins. As much as it's built as a simple home invasion story, it's also a cautionary tale about letting the privileged run the roost. Apparently they would simply allow the lesser classes to thin the herd via the Purge. I don't think we're supposed to like James that much, although he loves his family and would do/does anything to protect them. Any view of the outside is shown via security cameras or through windows, and the levels of tension the film builds are many.
I don't want to say too much about what happens from this point on, but when the masked people chasing the character known as "Bloody Stranger" (Edwin Hodge) show up, they aren't happy with the Sandins at all. They are led by a terrifying Australian actor Rhys Wakefield (playing the "Polite Stranger"), who will be getting more villainous work in the future. The violence itself isn't that substantial, but when underscored with the sheer brutality of those engaging in the Purge, this is a tough film to watch at times.
Even if you watch the film purely for its shock value and messy body count—and ignore its social commentary—it's a solid, tight little movie that doesn't have an ounce of fat in its running time. THE PURGE is truly the definition of lean and mean. As he does in most of his genre work (GATTACA, SINISTER, DAYBREAKERS), Hawke doesn't hold back on the acting. It's his reactions to this very real danger that sell us on this film. And while you might not react to his character the same way you do to his work in BEFORE MIDNIGHT, his A game is on full display. I think THE PURGE is one of those interesting works that ought to provoke conversation, and that's always a good thing. I just hope people see it for what it is, and let the talk flow. I'm not sure I'd recommend the film to those of you with problems with violence, but I'm thinking the rest of you will dig it.