The Purge Review: A Grotesque Misfire

Many would probably like to argue the concept of the new Ethan Hawke thriller, The Purge is an intriguing satirical story in which a question of morality is brought to the forefront. In reality, the film is one that ignores the many questions and problems that could arise from the world created by the story and develops the feature into a standard, ultra-violent, horror flick. The direction the film decided to take makes what should have been a film that was more of a distopian sci-fi film, an empty and dreadful experience that fails to ask important questions while at the same time failing to provide anything other than a mindless, gruesome murderfest.


The premise of The Purge is quite simple. Once a year, there is a 12 hour period of time in which crime is essentially legal (although at the start of the purge time in the film there are a few restrictions made apparent). This time is supposed to be used for the purposes of letting out pent up aggression and anger, so naturally there are a lot of people who want to commit murder. The audience is supposed to believe this 12 hour purge period is the reason there is now no crime in the United States after the concept was implemented by the government.

Putting aside the misconception that crime no longer exists if you allow for a period where all crime is legal (something this film has no problems doing), the film is loaded with untaken risks and unasked questions, lightly touching on the disadvantages inherent in poverty and glancing at the morality of allowing tons of crime to happen in one night so the government can measure crime in a different way.

The film centers around James Sandin (Hawke), a security system salesman who has had a big sales year because of the purge, and his family (consisting of his wife, played by Lena Headey, and his two kids). He and his family put the home in lockdown with one of his security systems and plan to spend the night in piece, when James’ son decides to let a stranger into the home. It turns out there are a bunch of rich, over-priviledged kids wanting to murder the man, who happens to be an African-American homeless man. According to these rich, educated kids, it is their right to “weed out” the “weaker” people in society. So, naturally, they decide to terrorize the Sandin family.


The blatancy of the film comes as almost an insult to this particular viewer. Trying to incorporate some sort of overwrought message of morality in a film so blatant and appallingly violent (we’ll get to the violence in a second) is a slap in the face to the intelligence of an audience, and The Purge is one of the many films that seems to be confused as it seems to support the very ideas that the empty vocal messages in the same film try to speak out against (it seemed fitting the trailer to Kick-Ass 2 was paired with the screening).

The Purge is a film that requires the audience to suspend disbelief in an almost unreasonable manner, and seems to be focused on the question of “would the purge actually” work instead of the inherent dilemmas within the concept itself. It’s a film that wants to be hopeful and interesting, but at every turn decides to trends towards the hopeless and dull aspects. It’s a film that quickly becomes more interested in killing people in unnecessary violent ways (if you shoot somebody in the head, is it really necessary to shoot them 3 or 4 more times in the chest?).


Keep in mind, this is not a horribly made film as far as atmosphere goes and the performances are not to blame for the dreadful experience that is created here. The film doesn’t create any suspense organically as it seems to be more focused on getting to the killing and letting darkness and jump scares do most of the work. It’s a film that lightly glazes over some obvious political issues which are put into the film so it appears the movie has something to say, when really the film is all about violence, death, and not much else.


What do you think? Leave a comment.

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I'm Kevin Licht, a graduate from the University of Missouri with a bachelor's degree in English and a minor emphasis in Film Studies. When I'm not working I watch and write

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  1. I’m honestly surprised that this film premiered at number 1. It always sounded a little silly. By a little, I mean a lot.

  2. It’s a great premise that’s not explored much, if not at all. The acting is decent enough although it doesn’t match the acting of films like Funny Games where you can feel the true horror of a family’s space being invaded. I jumped a few times but few were worthy. It’s a fun time but that’s all.

  3. What a stupid sounding film! I’ll give this one a miss.

  4. Amanda Gostomski

    Pretty much it took a good concept, and in ten minutes turned into a stereotypical “The Strangers” horror/thriller. Agree all the way across the board.

  5. That’s a let down, I expected the film to be deeper then it was letting on.
    The premise had potential.

  6. It’s interesting that the film isn’t believable, and that’s a major failing on the part of the filmmakers. But I’m also disappointed that it’s sheer violence. I hoped that it would be something a little more interesting than your standard horror film.

  7. Tom Beasley

    Great premise; terrible execution. Instead of exploring what the society is like, they just explore the violent bit.

  8. Jon Lisi
    Jon Lisi

    This was a well-written review but I want to suggest that I think the film deserves at least a little more credit than you’re giving. It is not the latest horror masterpiece (that was ‘The Descent’ in 2005) but it is still worthy of our attention and our discussion.

    Mainly I want to argue that the premise sets the film up for the kind of violence that you seem to reject. But also, it is depicted in a more intelligent way. What about the rage Ethan Hawke’s character lets out and what does that say about him? He is a so-called ordinary man who, when given the chance, seems to find perverse pleasure in causing violence to strangers. Surely that can be intriguing, even if it is simplistic and basic psychology.

    In addition, I think the discussion of realism needs to be clarified. All films are not realistic when compared to the real world, but most are at least believable to the fictional worlds of the films. I think the filmmakers make The Purge a believable concept for the world of the film. After all, governments have done scarier things in the past. Just out of curiosity, what more exposition would you have needed to believe the concept?

    Finally, I think the film is pretty interesting philosophically as it suggests throughout that morals and ethics are not necessarily linked with legality (consider the mother’s reaction to the violence or the son’s reaction). That’s a pretty bold statement for a mainstream horror film to make. It may not be the first to make it, but we can’t pretend like it isn’t saying something.

    • Kevin Licht

      I agree with you on The Descent (that feels like a horribly overlooked horror film), but we’ll have to agree to disagree in the case of The Purge.

      There is a verisimilitude issue I have with the film. Creating a believable world isn’t the only thing that should attribute to the plausibility of a film and from what I saw, the movie made it very difficult to believe the actions of the characters. Every single decision made seemed to be simply a tool to try to make the plot go somewhere.

      I don’t believe the Ethan Hawke character took pleasure in causing any violence in the film (I think I know what scene you are talking about but I didn’t see it as pleasure). The character did seem fraudulent to me, which may have been the point, but none of the backstory or little details in the film supported any one idea, and in the end I felt that this was one of those films that was trying to be smart but turned into a mindless killing spree.

      I do think if one were to make a case for this film getting some credit, the Lena Headey character would probably be one of the lead-ins because, even though I had some problems with the ending, I felt she did a pretty good job.

  9. It seems as though a better tack to take would be an examination on the moral implications of such wanton killing and not the function therein.

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