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The Purge Flunks Philosophy to Favor Fright

<i>The Purge</i> Flunks Philosophy to Favor Fright

DVD Release Date: October 4, 2013
Theatrical Release Date: June 7, 2013 
Rating: R for strong disturbing violence and some language
Genre: Suspense
Run Time: 85 min. 
Director: James DeMonaco
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Max Burkholder, Adelaide Kane, Edwin Hodge, Rhys Wakefield

The 2012 film Compliance suggested that human beings can be prodded to commit degrading acts against others when prompted under the guise of authority. The film was controversial, but despite being based on a real incident, it badly stretched believability—to the point that it kept viewers at a distance from the proceedings, observing and questioning rather than feeling as though they had a role (and hence, some culpability) in what was happening on screen.

The Purge, written and directed by James DeMonaco, tries to make us ask whether we might be, at root, violent beings capable of the worst crimes against other people. The story is set in 2022, when America is, we’re told, "a nation reborn" thanks to the Purge: an annual 12-hour event when everyone is encouraged to "release the beast." That is, they can kill, maim and commit all manner of crime, without any fear of repercussions. No law enforcement or emergency services will be on call. It’s every man for himself.

The result? America has an all-time lowest crime rate. Citizens claim the Purge "saved our country," and that we need to "remember all the good the Purge does." Some characters credit the Purge with weeding out the criminal element of society, while critics claim the Purge boils down to the elimination of the needy.

James Sandin (Ethan Hawke, Brooklyn's Finest) is no critic of the Purge. A successful security system salesman, James plans to ride out the night in his spacious home, which has recently grown more spacious with a new addition—thanks, a neighbor says, to all the security systems he sold to everyone in their community. James's biggest problems are his son Charlie's (Max Burkholder) withdrawn nature (his closest companion is a deformed doll named Timmy) and a daughter, Zoe (Adelaide Kane), who harbors a rebellious streak and a boyfriend who doesn’t get along with James.

As for the threats outside his home and neighborhood, James isn’t concerned. His security system will keep his family safe. "We can afford protection," he tells his wife, Mary (Lena Headey, 300). "We’ll be fine as always."

But if that were the case, there would be no movie.

The trouble starts when Charlie, watching a video feed of the happenings outside the family abode, sees a wounded man begging for help. He's on the run from an unseen mob, and Charlie, without asking permission of anyone, opens the home to the man. Soon a gang of thugs appears outside the Sandins' door. Led by a menacing blonde (Rhys Wakefield, Sanctum), they demand that James release the "dirty homeless pig." Hand him over, or they will break into the home and kill James and his loved ones.

A confrontation inside the home ends with James's wife and son locked in a room while James searches for the wounded but dangerous homeless man hiding out somewhere in the house. James has to protect himself while wrestling with his conscience: if he hands the man over, is he no better than the thugs?

The story delivers some well executed suspense sequences, if nothing original or groundbreaking. The camera tracks James through his home in tight shots that limit viewer perspective—all the easier to provoke a jump when characters pop out or show up in the shadows just over another character's shoulder.

Yet it’s hard to embrace the film’s suspense without accepting The Purge's premise: that once a year, the country would allow mass killings and a 12-hour crime wave in order to improve society. Such a spree might reduce the crime rate, but as the Sandins' neighbors demonstrate even before the Purge, that annual venting of bottled up hatred doesn’t make the neighbors any less nasty, envious or annoying. It doesn’t lessen James's professional, competitive drive, which, the film implies, may be creating distance between him and his family, as well as between the family and their neighbors. Nor does the Purge solve his daughter’s back-talk, or make his son less withdrawn and strange.

The film fancies that it's asking serious philosophical questions about whether, under extreme duress, we might commit the very acts we frown upon. It’s an interesting question to ponder early in the story, when James is told he must hand over the person he's sheltering, but once James's family is under attack, their actions become understandable out of self-defense. We root for James and his family because we detest the killers who drag him into their plans to kill others. Really, a "kill or be killed" scenario does not raise the moral dilemma the filmmakers think it does.

Choosing to go out and murder others is another matter. Scripture commands us to live differently, and, by the Holy Spirit, to overcome our sinful impulses. Paul writes, "For you have been called to live in freedom—not freedom to satisfy your sinful nature, but freedom to serve one another in love. For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ … So I advise you to live according to your new life in the Holy Spirit. Then you won't be doing what your sinful nature craves. The old sinful nature loves to do evil, which is just opposite from what the Holy Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are opposite from what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, and your choices are never free from this conflict" (Galatians 5:13–17, NLT)

The Purge is a violent film that, in one way, shows us how a sterile existence apart from faith can leave us hopeless and helpless. But such a Christianized take-home is not the filmmakers' intent. They're clearly more interested in the bloodshed that saturates the final act of The Purge—an ugly film that isn’t half as challenging as its makers fancy. By its conclusion, The Purge feels more like a wallow in the dark side than a stimulating provocation.


  • Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; multiple uses of the f-word; “son of a b-tch”; “penis”; “what the hell”; homeless man referred to as a “pig”
  • Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: Wine is sipped and served with dinner
  • Sex/Nudity: Kissing; teens kiss on a bed, and the girl’s shirt is unbuttoned; cleavage is visible
  • Violence/Crime: Premise of the Purge is to allow people to commit any act, including murder, for 12 hours; Purge footage shows beatings, shootings, riots; a TV commentator says that we are a violent people, and that the Purge allows release of the aggression we all have inside of us; a cache of weapons; a gang threatens the family with death unless they hand over a man they’re harboring; man struck on the head with a vase; a sharp object is inserted into an open wound; characters are shot at point blank range several times; a nose is broken
  • Religion/Morals: Characters recite, "Blessed be America, a nation reborn," and "blessed be our founding fathers"
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Publication date: June 7, 2013