The 400-Word Review: The Purge
By Sean Collier
June 9, 2013
One of the smart moves in The Purge, the scifi horror thriller written and directed by James DeMonaco, is a series of omissions.
The premise: it’s 2022, and America now celebrates its freedoms with a once-a-year night of mayhem. Police, fire and medical services go offline; there are no laws, and any form of crime you prefer is permitted. Encouraged, in fact.
A lesser filmmaker would’ve bogged The Purge down with details on how the tradition came to be (unnecessary) and an over-mythologization of this brave new world. Also taken as a given: with every feasible crime on the table, the average American of The Purge opts for murder. No need to explain that, either; frankly, we’d be surprised if things went any other way.
Without such trappings, we can get to the action at hand rather quickly. James (Ethan Hawke) is a well-to-do salesman, making a great living peddling purge-proof security systems to the upper crust. His success has raised the ire of the neighbors, though, who can’t help but notice that the fancy addition on James's family home is the direct result of the security gates and CCTV systems on theirs.
Meanwhile, less affluent Americans keep objecting to the purge, pointing out that the well-off have a much easier time defending themselves from roaming bands of once-a-year psychopaths than the poor. It adds up to a confluence of tensions at James’s home, with an empathetic son (Max Burkholder,) a pouting daughter (Adelaide Kane) and a generally terrified wife (Lena Headey) thrown into the mix.
The assembling of these chess pieces is delightful. The film’s first hour gradually introduces complications to James’s seemingly secure purge night; by the time blood is shed, the tension is unbearable. DeMonaco deftly turns the happy home into maze, prison and sanctuary simultaneously, while the carnage outside creeps in from the television screens to the front door.
Some steam is lost as the climax approaches, as too many cat-and-mouse games weigh the proceedings down; one particular reveal is utilized at least a half-dozen times. There may have been a few too many elements in play; when the tension starts to dissipate, violence crops up instead, for better or worse.
That’s a minor complaint, however. The Purge is original, suspenseful and deft. Like fellow surprise horror hits Paranormal Activity and Saw, the concept has genuine legs; surprisingly, I’d actually love to see a franchise develop.
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark