James DeMonaco’s “The Purge” is a bloody-minded, heavy-handed satire of life within these violent United States. It’s a horror film with the occasional visceral thrill: the fear of being hunted, the excitement of righteous violence against nameless intruders. But mostly, it’s just a clumsy lecture about who we’re becoming: haves vs. have-nots, with the haves armed to the teeth.
In the not-distant future, “the New Founding Fathers” have decreed America has one night of catharsis when we can give in to our most violent impulses. Murder and mayhem abound, and first responders have the night off.
Basically, you’re on your own for “The Purge.” The well-off can hunt the homeless, the “weak” and those who don’t contribute to society. Or just seek revenge. Others whom we’ll call “rich liberals” buy massive security systems and hunker down in their fortress mansions for the night.
Ethan Hawke portrays one of the latter, a salesman who’s gotten rich off selling armored security systems. Lena Headey plays his resigned-to-this-yearly-purge wife. Max Burkholder and Adelaide Kane are the sensitive son and hormonal daughter whose trusting natures would thwart any security system.
Because Zoe (Kane) has let the boyfriend Dad forbids her to see into the house, and Charlie (Burkholder) rescues a homeless vet (Edwin Hodge), saving him from a hunt. And that brings vengeful preppies (led by Rhys Wakefield, so good in the indie “The Black Balloon”) who were stalking the vet.
DeMonaco seems awfully concerned that we won’t get his points here, so there’s repetitious 24-hour TV coverage about how it is time to “release the beast and purge our American streets,” debates over the morality of it, how “culling” society lowers unemployment and helps the economy.
You can see what Hawke and Headey envisioned in this – the chance to make a statement for compassion and humanity in the face of the social Darwinism that might create a night like this.
But lapses in logic and characterization trip it up at every turn. This Charlie kid seems to have a death wish and a sense of removal from his supposed compassion that undercuts his supposed motivation. The boyfriend is underdeveloped. The family is armed, but their “plan” of defense laughably involves splitting up and searching for the wounded homeless man in their pitch-black house.
The reliably believable Hawke has had good luck in horror in recent years (“Sinister,” “Daybreakers”), but his instincts fail him here. “The Purge” is an 85-minute chore that tediously plays like a real-time re-creation of the night of the Purge – all 12 hours of it.