In a near-future America where the crime rate is at a record low, it is the night of the 'Purge' – an annual 12-hour period in which laws are temporarily revoked and murder is sanctioned, even deemed patriotic. This "countrywide catharsis" is also in effect a state-sponsored culling of the economically unproductive – that's bad if you are underprivileged, marginalised or otherwise outside the safety net, but good for people like James Sandin (Ethan Hawke), whose work as a security system installer puts loads of money on the table of his enviably large suburban home.
Yet even within his gated community, the Purge provides an opportunity for upright bourgeois families to settle some scores, unleash their petty resentments, and "release the beast" with a spot of nocturnal "hunting" – while for the neighbourhood's preppy kids out to flex their sense of entitled superiority over "filth" and "homeless pigs", it's like Christmas and Halloween all come at once. Locked in tight for the night with his wife Mary (Lena Headey) and children Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and Charlie (Max Burkholder), James will find his smug sense of security sorely challenged as he comes under attack from within and without, and must work out what sort of community values he wishes to uphold.
The premise of The Purge accommodates plenty of dark social satire, suggesting a rosy-seeming American dream built on the "sacrifice" of an expendable underclass (the lynch mob's quarry here is Edwin Hodge's vagrant African-American ex-soldier) – but it is not long before the film's high concept is beleaguered by an aggressive incursion of standard genre plotting, as writer/director James DeMonaco (Staten Island) reverts to the tried-and-trite tropes of home invasion and even the clichés of the siege scenarios that he has already explored in his screenplays for The Negotiator (1998) and the Assault on Precinct 13 remake (2005).
Genre, of course, brings its own pleasures, but it can also play havoc with any attempts at presenting a consistent ideology, and so The Purge comes rife with contradictions. On the one hand, the film strives to present a liberal message of broad community spirit and non-violent conflict resolution – but on the other, it must satisfy genre's demands for escalating threats followed by a satisfying payoff. Adding to the confusion, the Sandins turn on a dime from bunkered middle-class family with its head in the sand to old-fashioned all-American gun-toters prepared to protect the homestead at any cost.
Skating this ethical double-standard, the film presents a morality no less divided than the broken society at its core, split between have and have-not, white and black, paid up and sold out. It is an efficient dystopian horror thriller, as much about the America of today as of the year 2022 – but in the end the film privileges stock scenes over good ideas, and gets away with its conventionality merely through sheer pace and brevity.
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