Brainless Brutality: The Purge Is a Virulent Travesty of the Profanity It Pretends to Be Questioning

All crimes are legal and anything goes—for one night

Rhys Wakefield in The Purge.

Rhys Wakefield in The Purge.

As a nauseating variation on the home-invasion theme, The Purge is as sickening as it is dreary. The year is too close for comfort (2022, to be exact) but the events are not as far-out as they seem. America has reached the saturation point of immortality, violence and destruction, and the government has passed a Purge law declaring one night a year as a national holiday. For 12 hours, from curfew until the whistle blows declaring a return to normal, all crimes are legal and anything goes. It’s the American way of the future. If you want to rape a child, behead an adversary, beat your wife or blow up a schoolhouse, now’s your chance, or you’ll have to wait another year for a second try.

As the hour approaches at the upscale gated-community home of wealthy James Sandin (Ethan Hawke), his wife Mary (Lena Headey) and their two kids, they bolt and lock the doors, turn on the television guard monitors and reach for the automatic weapons before announcing “Time for lockdown!” There is no point to this movie, but the point of the Purge is an excuse to release all the prejudice, carnality, rage and suppressed aggression that American citizens have been storing up all year. The results are impressive. Crime is down, the economy is flourishing and Wall Street has never been healthier. Criminologists and psychiatrists have replaced rock stars as the most popular go-to talk show guests, debating the pros and cons of a holiday that is bigger than Sadie Hawkins Day in Dogpatch.

The Sandins are ready for popcorn and a movie, until Junior takes pity on a bloody, terrified black man approaching the house screaming for help and lets him in, opening a floodgate of mayhem. The mob of vengeful kids chasing the victim, wearing hideous Halloween masks and carrying weapons, assault the house and threaten to kill everyone inside.

The next hour devotes itself to spectacular nonstop bouts of wholesale slaughter. The brutality is so brainless and contrived that, at the screening I attended, the audience roared with laughter. A movie with the premise that killing is good for what ails you has its own built-in tension, but before it can make much of a statement about man’s growing inhumanity, The Purge collapses in a virulent travesty of the profanity it pretends to be questioning. “Violate and annihilate” is everyone’s motto, and they do it with machetes, machine guns, hatchets and pistols, watching a Times Square rally thanking all of the people who sacrifice their lives in a “reborn America” on Purge night to “make the world a better place.”

Writer-director James DeMonaco clearly hopes to make a significant moral statement on the level of Shirley Jackson’s literary masterpiece The Lottery. Alas, his aim at political conservatives who support the gun lobby falls flat before he can pull the trigger. The movie is better when it takes occasional comic swipes at the creepy Sandin family by making them look like out-takes from The Donna Reed Show. For a family homemaker with no qualms about homicide, the mother proudly serves up her culinary skills at dinner, bragging “Not one carb!” Then, as soon as the dishes are done, she folds her apron and turns into Zombie Island Massacre. Anyone for blood pudding?

rreed@observer.com

THE PURGE

Written by James DeMonaco

Directed by James DeMonaco

Starring Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey and Max Burkholder

Running time: 85 mins.

1/4 stars