The Purge itself isn't formally explained until the second act of the film, but you get all you really need to know the opening minutes of the film. We hear callers on a radio station, one in particular stating that his boss 'has it coming'. This is coupled with scenes of horrific violence from years past, setting the tone for the film effectively. We then go an affluent looking community where the rich are able to protect themselves, while hearing the argument that the poor are the real victims of the Purge. The phrase everybody uses, "have a safe night" quickly feels vacuous in a way that reminded me favourably of the Hunger Game's "may the odds be ever in your favour".
We join the Sandin family who appear to reside in an upper class community. James, the patriarch of the family makes a living selling security systems. This gives us an interesting perspective, as we are following a character who profits from the morally questionable Purge night, and does so openly and even proudly. James boasts to his family that his team had sold the most upgraded security systems that year, and a neighbour comments that he potentially sold systems to the whole street. Ethan Hawke plays James as a hard working man who loves his family, while the script attempts to give him a hint of smugness using devices like showing him shopping for a boat on his tablet. in this sense it is not clear whether we are supposed to like him or not. James' wife Mary seems to treat her neighbours with suspicion when she is first introduced, and has a constant look of concern on her face even before the Purge begins. Much like in her most famous role as Cercei Lannister in Game of Thrones, Lena Heady's facial expressions bring a sense that there is more behind her eyes than her dialogue suggests, which helps a great deal to add to the feeling that no one is safe.
Once the exposition section is over and the Purge begins the plot thickens when their son Charlie (Max Burkholder) allows a homeless man (Edwin Hodge, credited as 'bloody stranger') into the house to save him. Charlie doesn't anticipate that a group of masked 'freaks' doesn't take kindly to their target being protected. You may have noticed I have spent most of this review explaining the plots setup and thats because this is what the film does an awful lot of too. The Purge might be an unfamiliar idea to us initially but once it is explained once you don't really need to reiterate it as much as the film does. There is no escaping the fact that the plot is sketchy at some points, with characters making strange and confusing choices in order to advance the story in the way it needs to go. Once you see where the plot is going you can see that they had a destination in mind all along without enough thought put into how they are going to get there. I'm mainly referring to one major moral decision the family has to make that is played more for ramping up the tension than rational thought from the characters. The one part I wasn't willing to forgive was why is there no consequence for the boy who causes all the mayhem that ensues. If he didn't take pity on the man there would have been no plot and the family would have remained under lockdown, and I couldn't ignore that like his family does.
It is worth noting that there isn't a bad performance within the Sandin family, and that Hawke and
Heady are particularly believable throughout. Ethan Hawke is impressive in his action scenes, which was a bit of a surprise to me given that I know him more as a wet blanket in Before Sunrise (1995). I was a little taken out of the film by the 'freaks' (thats how they are credited), especially the main one who is played by Rhys Wakefield and credited as 'polite leader'. This name alone makes me think not a lot of thought was put into him and his motivation beyond him looking a bit like like Draco Malfoy's American equivalent and apparently becoming psychotic on Purge night. If we are supposed to believe that these people are upstanding citizens for the rest of the year, how do they turn into Heath Ledgers Joker for just seven hours and then back again?
On the whole I enjoyed my time with The Purge, although I spent much of my time afterwards picking apart its psychology. While this is technically classed as a horror film I found it tense at times but not at all frightening, and I'm not much of a horror fan. You can smell its jump scares coming from a mile away which defeats the purpose. Its a bit of a mess, but its an enjoyable mess and it did leave me interested enough to write about it and wanting to watch its sequels.