The Purge is a B home-invasion thriller ladled with thick dollops of political allegory. Set in the near future, the movie portrays a quasi-libertarian America where, once a year, law enforcement and emergency services are shut down, and murder is decriminalized for 12 hours. Couched in the language of pop psychology and American exceptionalism, this so-called Purge is far from an equal-opportunity massacre; for the most part, it consists of the wealthy and well-armed killing the poor for sport. The message is blunt, but cogent: Any system that claims that no protection is the same as equal protection is really a system for protecting the privileged.
Ethan Hawke stars as a security salesman who lives in a ritzy gated community. Although he never participates in the Purge himself, Hawke has profited immensely from it; his security systems are installed in every house on the block, and his bunker-like McMansion is the envy of the neighborhood. On the night of the Purge, Hawke’s son spots homeless veteran Edwin Hodge stumbling down their street; Hodge is wounded, and the boy decides to let him in.
Soon, a roving band of preppie Purgers shows up. Their leader—played by Rhys Wakefield, channeling Michael Pitt in Funny Games—offers Hawke a deal: If the family hands over Hodge, the Purgers will leave them alone; if they don’t, they’ll have no choice but to break into the house and kill everyone inside. Wakefield frames this as a sort of gentleman’s agreement; he stops just short of pointing out that Hodge is black, while the Purgers and Hawke’s family are all white. Hawke immediately goes looking for Hodge, who—understandably reluctant to leave—has hidden himself somewhere in the house.
At this point, The Purge puts itself in a double bind. In order for the movie to completely succeed as a genre piece, it must fail as a political statement. In other words, The Purge suffers from BioShock Syndrome: Its survive-at-all-costs plot and anti-libertarian slant are incompatible. The movie can’t blast away nameless Purgers (whose masks and bizarre behavior seem to be modeled on BioShock’s Splicers) one minute and then imply the importance of social welfare the next.
To writer/director James DeMonaco’s credit, he manages to concoct an ending that satisfies genre expectations without undermining the movie’s central message. However, much of what leads up to that ending is a muddle. It doesn’t help that DeMonaco—best known for writing The Negotiator and Jean-François Richet’s above-average remake of Assault On Precinct 13—has an unsteady visual style. The entire movie takes place in Hawke’s house, but its lack of spatial coherence (it’s nearly impossible to figure out which floor the characters are on, let alone where they are in relation to the bad guys) kills any sense of suspense. The result is inchoate: not involving enough to work as a thriller, and too self-defeating to mean anything.