The Purge is a B-movie in conception and execution but, as is often the case with B-movies, it is also a timely and entertaining commentary on present-day America.
The film is set in 2022. The economy is booming, unemployment is barely 1% and America seems to have recovered from the violence and unrest of its recent past (i.e. our present). Why is that? Well because once a year Americans are legally allowed to go and kill anyone they feel like for a 12-hour period. This ‘purge’ is seen as a patriotic duty as it gets rid of all the criminals, all who are seen as ‘detritus’ (here black, poor, homeless) and simply anyone who is hated (which could include pretty much everyone, even in, or especially in, a gated community).
This purge is believed to flush out all bad people as well as all bad feeling leading to both social and psychological well being for the rest of the 364 days. Households are allowed to protect themselves against those who want them purged from this world of course…but that takes money. Thus at the heart of this seemingly banal sci-fi horror is a scathing critique of race and class in contemporary America. It’s been released under the title of American Nightmare (not Le cauchemar Américain).
The film is rather wonderful at inverting some of the conventions of the genre (What happens to nubile young girls who do naughty things? What’s the cost to the hero of protecting his family?), at re-attributing symbols (what it does here with the Occupy movement masks) and at indicating how close the language of politics, society, identity and community in America now is to that depicted in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The Purge is also excellent at communicating a sense of social hatred for the poor, for the failures, for the different or simply for those that have what you want.
The Purge cops out at the end (it wants to do the moral thing but also keep the diamond rings), its analysis and critique are a bit muddled and it is perhaps not as scary as it should be. I note that some message boards find the premise unbelievable because they can’t imagine emergency services not running for 12-hours (though welcome to most of the rest of the world friends!) or, as the film rather underlines, because of the psychological, social and economic cost of those 12-hours of purge.
If you allow yourself to buy into the film’s premise, however, you’ll find that the film moves well; that Ethan Hawke is rather wonderful as an ordinary, slightly put-upon middle-class father; that he makes a good couple with Lena Hedley (best known for her Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones); that Rhys Wakefield is a superbly chilling villain and that the film is enjoyably scary whilst leaving you with a thing or two to think about.