In The Purge, a suburban family is put through hell because right wingers came up with a plan to eliminate the poor and the sick. And we all come face to face with how broken the American dream really is. Yadda yadda. Basically, it's like this year's Atlas Shrugged or Now: a clunky and implausible political screed in movie form.
Some spoilers ahead...
So in the world of The Purge, America has faced a "quadruple-dip recession," until finally the "New Founding Fathers" decided there was only one way to save our economy and our morality from this ongoing crisis. So once a year, for twelve hours, there's a night where ALL CRIME IS LEGAL.
Can you torrent Metallica songs? Yes. Can you post your Harry Potter fanfic, and charge money for it? Yes. Jay-walking? Totally legal. Embezzling? Go right ahead, and they can't press charges afterwards. Could you write a completely libelous blog post about Brad Pitt and a donkey? Yes. Anything is legal. Because America demands it.
If you've seen the trailers for The Purge, you might have come away with the impression that this is something to do with letting out all the bottled-up aggression and raw id, so that people can go back to being nice conformist citizens the other 364 nights of the year. And this rationale is certainly mentioned — but it's spelled out, over and over again, that the real reason for the Purge is to weed out the undesirables. The poor, the sick, the homeless, the disabled — all the people who belong to that "47 percent" who leech off the rest of us.
And whenever this is brought up, there's a whole spiel about patriotism and God and the New Founding Fathers, so you're left in no doubt that the New Founding Fathers are all members of the Tea Party or whatnot. This movie is about as subtle as Ralph Nader on ketamine. Although whenever they mention God, they say "Blessed Be America," which makes them sound weirdly like fascist Unitarians.
Oh, and we see timestamped video footage of previous years' Purges, which shows that the first Purge was in 2016 or 2017, just a few years from now. Because we're THAT close to thinking it's okay to have an annual murder spree. (In the context of the movie, there's no mention of other crimes — we're told that ALL CRIME IS LEGAL but the only crime anybody wants to commit is murder.)
The movie's main character, James Sandin (Ethan Hawke), is a patriot who supports the Purge by displaying the proper blue flowers. And he sells security systems to wealthy suburbanites — including his neighborhoods in their gated community — so that the well-to-do can be protected during the annual crime orgy. James came from humble roots, but now he's made a ton of money off people's fear of the annual chaos. And his family is your average stereotypical suburban family who don't appreciate him putting food on the table.
His daughter Zoey is dating a creepy older guy who tells her that instead of saying "I love you" to each other, they should make creepy growling noises at each other instead, because that would be creepier. His son Charlie is a weird introvert who writes down his own heart-rate in a notebook every hour, and he's made a creepy robot with a deformed baby head and one glowing red eye. Meanwhile, James' wife Mary (Lena Headey) is a housewife. I guess. That's her character trait.
So the annual Purge arrives, and the Sandin family locks their house up, closing the expensive shutters and arming all the doohickeys, so the madness outside won't get in. Except that the daughter's creepy older boyfriend has decided randomly to hide in the house and shoot James. Plus there's a homeless man right outside their house, who's being hunted by evil preppies and crying for help in the street — and young Charlie decides to let the homeless dude come inside their house. Thus attracting the attention of the evil preppies.
This is one of those movies that tries to walk an impossible line, tonally.
On the one hand, it really really wants to be a standard scary "home invasion" movie in which James and the Sandins play a deadly game of cat and mouse with the homeless man, as well as the scary masked preppies who want to kill him. And it's all completely serious and wants to be pulse-pounding.
On the other, this movie has ambitions to be a gonzo political satire about how the American people hate poor people so much that we think it's a good idea to have one night a year when killing the poor is legal. (Rich people can hide behind fancy security systems, but the poor are fair game.)
This movie keeps throwing out crazy over-the-top ideas, that belong in a weird satire, and then trying to change gears back to "tense dramatic thriller" territory. Which, if you're going to try and make a movie in the vein of Idiocracy or Society or even Demolition Man, then just frickin go for it. Don't spend a precious hour trying to build suspense with jump cuts and shots of Ethan Hawke freaking out in the near- dark. Especially when your movie's premise strains credulity as much as this one does, don't even bother trying to play it straight.
As it is, this movie is chock full of scenes that are unintentionally funny. Side-splitting, but not on purpose. Like the attempts to build creepy suspense by having the leader of the Killer Preppies talk about his patriotic right as an American to kill homeless people. Or the going-through-the-motions "scary" bits where this film tries to ride James Wan's coat-tails with dimly glimpsed movement, just out of frame. Or the parts where you're supposed to be horrified by all these white people trying to hunt a poor African American homeless man, who just wants to be left alone. IT'S LIKE A METAPHOR FOR AMERICA AND STUFF.
Actually, it's the parts where the movie tries to rub your face in how low all of these people have sunk, and convince you that you, too, would be that bad if you were living in the near future when murder is legal once a year, that become the most unintentionally laugh-out-loud funny.
When the movie reaches its final half hour and finally becomes an all-out bloodbath, it gets to be way more fun, because watching straight-up murder and mayhem is always more fun than ill-thought-out political messages and warmed-over suspense. And the final scene of the movie, which I won't give away, is genuinely a superb moment, that retroactively makes you feel as though there might have been some point to all of this. Until you remember the rest of the movie.
But for the most part, this is a suspense movie in which you can see every twist coming a mile off. It's a political movie made by someone whose only exposure to politics was getting drunk and reading a single issue of Socialist Worker in the 1990s. It's an "edgy" movie that keeps cutting its own fingers. This is very much the sort of movie that you should Netflix six months from now and watch with a copious supply of your beverage or drug of choice. Don't be afraid to get high as a motherfucker while watching this film, even if you live in a state with vigorous drug enforcement — because America and God want you to break all of the laws, in the name of patriotism. Amen.