The Purge (2013)

It’s the future! America is even crazier than it is now! There’s even a special, annual holiday, during which everybody is allowed to KILL! Except that, according to the title card that pops up at the beginning of the film (always a bad sign), it’s only 2022. Does that mean, just nine years from now, the world will have turned into this slightly dystopian, yet otherwise fairly similar, version of the future? I shudder to imagine. The idea of a horrifying soon-to-be future is an old reliable, but when it’s done right – usually with some sci-fi weirdness thrown in – it can be really unsettling. In the case of The Purge, however, setting the film less than a decade from now eliminates the weird, otherworldly element that makes these kinds of movies so scary.

After all, this is a world that is very familiar to us. Its inhabitants use smart phones, have flat screen TVs, and live in normal houses, the only strange addition to which, is a high-tech security system that wouldn’t look out of place on the average celebrity mansion, especially seeing as it only really comprises of metal barricades over the doors and windows.

The film opens on the day of the titular “purge”, an annual holiday during which all crime is legal because, in this universe, it’s almost non-existent, and everyone is getting along great (aside from on this particular day, of course). Ethan Hawke is a well-to-do family man, who has struck gold with the aforementioned security system, managing to install one in every home within his exclusive, gated community. He and his family are enjoying the night, barricaded inside their home, when his son notices a bloodied man screaming for help on one of their many surveillance screens, and rather stupidly lets him inside the house. It isn’t long before a masked group of sadistic lunatics come looking for him, and, as is to be expected with this kind of film, if he doesn’t come out, they’re going in.

The Purge isn’t exactly a unique concept. In fact, it’s a lot like Panic Room, but with less Jared Leto and more Ethan Hawke, mixed with The Strangers. The setup falls apart almost immediately, and once it’s revealed that entry can be gained into the property relatively easily, it’s a slow trudge to an incredibly predictable finale. There are no surprises here. Even the jump scares don’t register, as the film follows a fairly obvious formula, which makes it very boring and slow. As with last year’s Sinister, Hawke does a good job of running around, looking frightened, but it’s difficult to empathise when we know so little about his character. Lena Headey is great as his wife, especially when she gets to kick some ass, but sadly, she isn’t given a real moment to shine.

The only real positive is Home & Away alum Rhys Wakefield, who makes the film slightly more watchable, and is an absolute joy as the sadistic gang leader. He communicates entirely through a twisted, Joker-esque grin that corrupts his young, sweet face so much that he doesn’t even really need to wear a mask. Unfortunately, Wakefield isn’t given a whole lot to do here, and his character is dispensed with far too quickly. The moments he is onscreen are still the strongest, and a showdown between he and Headey’s mother would’ve alleviated The Purge slightly, but as it is, the film falls completely flat, after squandering its decent premise with too much wandering around in near-darkness and not nearly enough slicing and dicing.

In one, rather bizarre, sequence, it descends into video game territory, as members of the gang are picked off by Hawke, who has, stupidly, chosen to fight them instead of surrendering the stranger he’s harbouring. There’s a ham-fisted metaphor buried underneath all the bullshit, about the nature of humanity and whether murder is ever really justified, but it simply doesn’t ring true when people are being killed left, right and centre.

There is a sense, towards the end of The Purge, that it could’ve been a much nastier experience, but the desire to achieve a 15 rating, and thus tap into the lucrative teen market, seems to have derailed that plan. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t really work as is, and it certainly isn’t involving or entertaining enough to compensate for its complete lack of scares. It is, essentially, two films; one which tries to warn us about the horrible future to come, if we continue as we are, and another which wants to be a modern, yet severely neutered, version of A Clockwork Orange. If you didn’t get enough of Ethan Hawke wandering around a creepy house in near-darkness last year, then maybe this is for you, but otherwise, avoid at all costs.

Rating: ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆

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