It seems implausible, even for a movie: A decade from now, America's unemployment rate is 1%, and crime is virtually nonexistent. It's all 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 raises a lot of questions. Would a few hours every year be enough to satisfy the urges of the most violent individuals? Wouldn't crimes of passion still be a problem? How could the system possibly work?
It seems that this scenario doesn't even work in the world of The Purge. We experience Purge Night through the eyes of the charming Sandin family, who live sheltered lives in a gated suburban neighborhood. News flows into their tastefully decorated McMansion via TVs, which broadcast material that seems vetted by a fundamentalist Christian dictatorship. If we can't believe what we see on TV in 2013, how likely is it that TV tells the truth in some twisted U.S. of the future?
Plausible or not, writer-director James DeMonaco uses this conceit to do something extraordinary with the horror genre. Unlike other home-invasion flicks, in which the protagonists endure something utterly wrong, what happens to the Sandins is sanctioned. Why is it so uncomfortable when a film explicitly states that violence is good, even patriotic?
The Purge isn't a deep thinker of a film, mind you, but the Sandins do discuss the difference between legality and morality. Preteen son Charlie (Max Burkholder) doesn't like that it's appropriate to kill if you have the blessing of the powers that be. Feeling rebellious, he lets a fugitive (Edwin Hodge) into the house on Purge Night, making the family a target.
This is when The Purge gets really interesting, by adding a startling satire of our country's relationship with brutality. Purge Night is an extreme extrapolation of peculiarly American notions about security and self-defense. Dad James (Ethan Hawke) has earned the family fortune by selling home-security lockdown systems like the one that supposedly protects their own house. When he squawks that "things like this are not supposed to happen in our neighborhood," it's not just the bleat of someone clueless enough to believe that money protects people from harm. It's the sound of DeMonaco confronting America's culture of violence, privilege and delusion.