Sometimes the reaction to a movie is more interesting than the movie itself. Such is the case with The Purge, the futuristic home-invasion tale from writer/director James DeMonaco, which set a record last weekend when it grossed $36.4 million—a bigger opening than any other original, R-rated horror film to date. Given that it only cost around $3 million to make, The Purge will almost certainly be one of the most profitable movies of the year. It goes without saying that a sequel is already in development.
Given the film’s tone and overtly allegorical content, I find this surprising. While DeMonaco’s tense, bleak film certainly works as a high-concept potboiler, it’s the story’s social satire that really makes it worth seeing. Much of that commentary is delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, which makes the lines at the box office even stranger. And since the movie’s core demographic seems to be affluent young white people, it’s another case of a film making a mint off the very people it’s satirizing. (The Hunger Games, anyone?)
Not that anybody seems to be paying attention. The Purge opens with a montage of fake surveillance-camera footage of people being shot, beaten, stabbed, and hacked to death. It’s a grim, disturbing sequence, made even more so by the cheers and giggles it elicits from audiences. The images call to mind news footage of riots, with a key difference: the marauders are predominantly wealthy whites who take to the streets once a year to participate in the Purge, a 12-hour crime spree that allows people to legally rob, rape, and murder to their hearts’ content, provided they don’t use rocket launchers or attack government officials. The architects of the Purge are the New Founding Fathers, a group of right-wing politicos who probably think the Tea Party was a bunch of hippies.
The key to surviving the Purge is money, whether it affords you more firepower on the streets while you’re “hunting” or a fancy security system to barricade yourself behind. The Sandins, a wealthy nuclear family headed by James (Ethan Hawke) and Mary (Lena Headey), choose the latter. Though the Purge has made them rich—James sells the high-tech lockdown systems that protect every house in his opulent neighborhood—the Sandins feel no need to maim and kill their fellow Americans. They support the “effort,” though. James tells their teenage son Charlie (Max Burkholder) that the Purge “saved this country” by ridding the nation of poverty and crime. After all, the poor and unemployed, who can afford neither security nor superior firepower, are the Purge’s first and favorite victims.
So the Sandins will ride out Purge night behind high-tech barricades—that is, until they’re done in by irksome weaknesses like compassion and love. Purge Night 2022 finds two unwelcome additions to the Sandin household: teenage daughter Zoey’s older boyfriend, who’d like to have a word with James, and a homeless black man Charlie lets into the house. The man’s tormentors, a group of masked prep schoolers led by a smarmy and intensely creepy dude identified in the credits only as “Polite Leader” (Rhys Wakefield), make the Sandins an offer: either they can toss the man out to them so they can kill him, or the kids will invade the house and murder everyone in it. (Note: Do not buy a security system from Ethan Hawke. They’re apparently made of Swiss cheese and bottle caps.)
For the remainder of the film, DeMonaco swings back and forth between tense, silent stalking sequences, as the family take turns hunting and being hunted, and full-on siege mode, with bad guys crashing through windows and Hawke shooting anything that moves. Most of the scares are predictable, but the beats between them are well staged and sometimes nerve-wracking.
The Purge is at its best, though, when it focuses on the breakdown of the Sandin family’s security in more than a literal sense. Rhetoric that demonizes the other side is just noise no matter who’s making it, and DeMonaco resists the urge to portray the wealthy as heartless exploiters of all that is decent. Regardless of how James has made his money, the Sandins are basically good people who don’t deserve what’s happening to them.
Though The Purge’s theme—at its simplest, it’s a plea for nonviolence—initially seems at odds with the narrative itself, I don’t think that’s really the case. The “1 percent vs. the other 99” conceit that kicks everything off is a thematic MacGuffin; the film seems more concerned with the idea that maybe it’s not prudent to encourage any group to heavily arm itself, then point out that, man, those other guys really suck, don’t they? Unfortunately, it’s all falling on deaf ears, since the older teens and young adults who make up the film’s core demographic only seem entertained when someone’s stabbing someone else with a letter opener.
In spite of its occasional heavy-handedness, The Purge is a solid thriller that has something to say. Maybe we’re just not ready to put our phones away and listen.