‘The Purge’ a lackluster take on America

It may be impossible for me to write a hard-hitting review about The Purge (2013), but as always, I will do my best. ViCE Film League and Vassar alum Jason Blum ’91, producer of the film, generously allowed the Vassar College student body a sneak preview of The Purge, a semi-Sci-Fi flick about a utopic world a mere nine years in the future.

The central premise is fairly simple: in the year 2022, America will have one night every year where all of its citizens can commit any and all kinds of crime, even murder. Call me wacky, but that sounds just crazy enough to work.

I kid, I kid. It’s an interesting idea, however, considering the American characters are made blissfully happy by the one ruckus-raising night a year, the night of the “purge.” Also, maybe it’s due to my affinity for health classes, but the image of a person puking up their lunch kept coming to mind… Things to think about when you use the word “purge” in your film title.

The film opens with video footage from various purge evenings, an array of group beatings, buildings lit on fire, and people smashing in store windows. It doesn’t take long for the footage to grow boring, and violence made dull by repetition is an unfortunately common trope in The Purge. The film moves from old footage to the contemporary narrative, a depiction of a white upper-class family settling into their house for the night of the annual purge.

The Sandin family consists of an eleven year old son and a teenage daughter (both mildly irritating), a hapless wife (Lena Headey) and a domineering father, James (Ethan Hawke).

James works at a security company and has installed new security systems in all the homes in their well-to-do neighborhood. Although the majority of the families feel fairly confident that their houses won’t be broken into anyway, since they “don’t deserve death by purge” because they are wealthy, each home is still equipped with a top-rate security system.

It turns out the joke is on them. As luck would have it, the security system is embarrassingly easy to break through, as the terrifying masked collegiate-students prove when they turn up unannounced at the Sandin’s home. They are after the African-American male that James’ son, Charlie, lets past their Security system.

It turns out that there are groups of people in 2022 America who feel the need to “cleanse” themselves by killing a target, specifically one who is poor and preferably black. This group in particular, made of various white students dressed in sweater vests and preppy blazers, will not be turned down in their attempts to kill the stranger. Either the Sandin’s give him up, or the prepsters will kill the entire Sandin family.

Ethan Hawke would rather throw the stranger out to the proverbial wolves for a lynching than have his family killed, so he doesn’t hesitate to beat up and duct tape the stranger to a chair. He is unable to entirely hold the man down, so his wife has to help him, leading to a truly revolting scene in which his wife stabs the stranger (never provided a name) repeatedly with a letter opener while her children watch and beg her to stop. She ignores them, and nearly kills the stranger.

Everyone in the family apparently has very serious “listening” issues. The daughter dates a wild eighteen-year-old boy even though her parents explicitly forbid it, the son welcomes in a stranger on the worst night of the year, and the father violates all possible present day moral codes by demonstrating a willingness to bludgeon strangers to death. A classic American family, indeed. The Sandins present the ultimate “us or them” American mentality, a frame of mind which has never done us particularly well in the past. And, of course, it serves them poorly as well.

The Sandins never truly get it together. Although there are a few twists throughout the film, it’s still a fairly straightforward ride. Everyone’s trapped in the house, people will die (all of the “bad guys”), and there will be a lot of close calls.

Ultimately, everything will be fine for those who are entitled, and the movie will continuously push the idea that killing someone provides catharsis for the aggressor. Sure, the purge supposedly serves as “a way to get rid of all the hatred and anger” people feel throughout the rest of the year.

Sorry Purge creators, but I cannot imagine that a 12 hour gun-toting bender would make me any less stressed about the 23 page paper due for English in 2 weeks or the host of parties I need to attend on Founder’s Day. It’s simply to be expected. People are sometimes unhappy, sometimes angry, and crime happens. Let’s call a spade a spade, and not call the Cavalry in quite yet, okay?

Ultimately, The Purge was a weak film because it failed to deliver any new ideas. A clever concept, yes, but what do audience members have to show for their experience? Things we now know for sure: college students are psychotic, sadistic, and dress poorly. Parents will sacrifice strangers for the sake of their children. All security systems are fallible. Also, every family has a “unique” son with long hair who builds robots and invites strangers home. It’s just the way America works. Thanks for the refresher, Purge.

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