Ethan Hawke is no stranger to the “survive the night” genre of films. In fact, he’s been in better. Writer/director James DeMonaco is no stranger to the genre either, and has written better films (“The Negotiator”, “Assault on Precinct 13”). So shouldn’t that equal a great film? “The Purge” is a home-invasion thriller that should have been scarier and more thought provoking. Instead, it’s just average.
Set in 2022, the film’s premise is that Americans have been granted 12 hours every year to do whatever they want with impunity. Apparently, it means that the rest of the 364 days in the year we live peaceful lives, not caring that our neighbor may have murdered someone or worse. So for those 12 dangerous hours, we need someone like James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) to sell us an incredible security system. His family has chosen not to participate in The Purge but instead lock themselves inside their fortified home and wait until morning.
From the opening frames you’re waiting on The Purge to just start already. You don’t care about the neighbor who gripes to Mary Sandin (Lena Heady) about James selling so many security systems, or about Zoey Sandin’s (Adelaide Kane) teenage boyfriend troubles, even though you know it’s bound to come back in the film later. When the clock strikes seven and that horrific alarm sounds, things start to heat up.
Two things go foul to destabilize the night for the Sandins. First, Zoey’s boyfriend sneaks into the house before curfew (when the alarm was set). Second, Charlie (Max Burkholder), the Sandins all too sensitive son, disarms the security system and lets in a stranger (Edwin Hodge). The stranger is being hunted by a bloodthirsty group of “civilized” purgers who track him to the Sandins’ front door. With danger from inside and outside of the home, the Sandins have to band together to keep each other safe.
The most believable characters are James and Mary. A father who wants to protect his family, and a mother who doesn’t want to succumb to moral depravity is probably where the average viewer can relate. As we watch members of the Sandin household deal with these questions we have to suspend our disbelief in their decision making.
The film inspects our own morality in presenting various characters with differing stances. Would you participate in The Purge and kill the boss that’s been riding you all year? Would you help a stranger in need even when it may cost your own life? How far would you go to protect your family? These are all great questions that could have been answered cinematically with great character development and action, but instead settled for typical Hollywood cliches. It's like every time there is a moment to make the film scarier, or intense, DeMonaco backs down from the challenge.
In all, “The Purge” is 85 minutes of forgettable entertainment in a dark theater. I found myself holding my breath at times, but never on edge, gripping the seat tighter, turning my eyes away from the screen in such a way that I won’t look like a scaredy cat, etc. It’s no “Funny Games”, “The Strangers”, or “Straw Dogs”. It’s just a great premise with an average execution.