With the new Purge movie, The Forever Purge, releasing soon, I figured it was time to see if any of the previous entries were any good. Until recently, I’d never seen any, but I thought the concept was intriguing. Making a movie about an America that has a yearly holiday where all crime is legal for 12 hours has the potential for a lot of interesting commentary on American politics and sensationalism.
It’s a shame, though, that The Purge doesn’t lean into any of the interesting stuff that it proposes.
This movie is more interested in being a horror/thriller than it is in giving any meaningful or lasting political commentary. It’s just really weird because there was someone along the way who paid enough attention to detail to make it seem like someone wanted to emphasize the social commentary, but the scares and thrills ultimately won out.
The film follows the Sandin, an upper class family who has profited off the Purge. James (Ethan Hawke), the father, sells security systems to people who can afford it so they stay safe and secure on the night of the Purge. The people who actually need to worry about the Purge are the poor. In an opening card, we find that unemployment is at 1% in America and crime rates are incredibly low. This is obviously because everyone who is not wealthy enough to protect themselves is left out to fend for themselves against the murderous rich who think it’s their God-given right to weed out the “problems” in society.
I’d mostly heard negative things about this movie, but that premise and all of its potential thematic implications enticed me to watch it… Sadly, it lives up to almost none of its promise.
The Sandins — James, his wife Mary (Lena Headey), and their kids, Charlie (Max Burkholder) and Zoey (Adelaide Kane) — think they’re in for a peaceful night, locked down in their house as the purge commences, but when Charlie lets in a homeless Black man from the street who was looking for sanctuary, everything starts to go downhill.
Quite disappointingly, the movie only really chooses to focus on the giant herd of people coming after this homeless man. They’re the ones wearing the scary masks that’ll give you nightmares if you watch this at the wrong time of night, like I came very close to doing. They threaten to bring in tanks and explosives to get into the house if the Sandins don’t turn in the homeless man. So then the movie, which is only 85 minutes long, spends about 45 minutes showing deus ex machina events and ineffective jump scares.
There’s almost no time devoted to exploring the right versus wrong debate about whether to turn in this man. The homeless man is Black and, according to his coat, a veteran, but there is no exploration of why America might have neglected a Black veteran. The idea that that rich people never checked their own privileges regarding the Purge is never considered. The government’s implementation of the the Purge because it’s good for the bottom line is given minimal attention. Basically, anything interesting that the movie had going for it is only addressed in TV and radio clips and not by the characters wrestling with the implications.
Hawke and Headey are unsurprisingly excellent in this movie, but there are countless examples of great actors starring in bad movies. They probably saw something in the script that just didn’t come through in the final edit. Yet largely because of their devotion to their work, I didn’t feel like watching this movie was a waste of time.
The Purge has its moments, and I’ve heard its sequel is an improvement, so I’ll still be checking it out. It’s just disappointing to find a movie with so much promise not be interested in addressing anything that gave it that promise in the first place. I was left with more questions than ideas to ponder, and that’s how I know the movie failed.