Ten years from now, America is a paradise: Unemployment and crime are virtually nonexistent, thanks to the Purge, an annual 12-hour free-for-all during which all crime, including murder, is legal.
That's the premise of The Purge, and it doesn't quite hold up against human nature. Would a few hours every year be enough to satisfy the urges of the most violent among us? How could this possibly work in the real world?
It's entirely possible that it doesn't actually work even in the world of The Purge. For we experience everything here — Purge Night 2022 — through the eyes and ears of the all-American Sandin family, who live sheltered lives in a gated neighborhood. The news flows into their tastefully decorated McMansion via TV, broadcasting material that appears to be almost wholly under the purview of the "New Founding Fathers."
Paradise America is under some form of fundamentalist Christian dictatorship, and if we can't believe what we see on TV now, how likely is it that TV is telling the truth in this twisted 2022 USA?
Plausible or not, writer-director James DeMonaco has found a prism through which to do something extraordinary: He makes us look anew, and askance, at conventions of cinematic horror.
Unlike in other home-invasion flicks, which count on our sympathy for the victims because what they are enduring is Just So Wrong, that cannot be a factor here. Not only is what happens to the nice, handsome, wealthy Sandins not random, it is sanctioned. The demented morality of the world on the screen taunts us.
All horror movies assure us, on an unspoken level, that it's OK to enjoy the murder and mayhem they present us with. So why is it distinctly uncomfortable when a film explicitly states: "This is allowed. This is permitted. This is, even, good and decent and patriotic."
The Purge is hardly a deep-thinking film, but there is some discussion among the Sandins about the difference between legality and morality, particularly between mom Mary (Lena Headey) and preteen son Charlie (Max Burkholder), who doesn't like the idea of killing people. It's Charlie's rebelliousness that kickstarts the plot, when he opens the Sandin Purge Night lockdown to let in a stranger (Edwin Hodge) who is being hunted through the streets, which in turn makes the Sandins a Purge target they would not otherwise have been. For the man's hunters demand the family turn him over, lest they deny the hunters their Purge Night rights.
And so this is a startling satire of America's culture of violence, too. Purge Night is an extreme extrapolation of peculiarly American notions about "security" and "self-defense." The Purge is "a lawful outlet for American rage," the TV says, and it is "our duty as Americans" to support it (as the Sandins do).
Dad James (Ethan Hawke) earned the family fortune, in fact, by selling home-security lockdown systems like the one that supposedly protects their own home. When James squawks that "things like this are not supposed to happen in our neighborhood," it's not just the bleat of a victim clueless enough to believe that money and a nice house protect you from bad things. It's part of the film's direct confrontation with American violence and anger, privilege and delusion.