The Purge has a singularly dopey premise, but it’s that premise that keeps writer-director James DeMonaco’s little movie from being just another low-rent horror picture. Instead, it’s a low-rent horror picture with something on its mind. Setting the film in the (improbably) near future, DeMonaco presents us with a United States that has apparently been remade — by the never explained “new founding fathers” — into a kind of Ayn Rand/Tea Party/NRA nightmare. On the surface, this whole new society looks like a Reagan-era fantasy of the 1950s. And it seems to hinge on the Purge, a once-a-year 12-hour period (overnight, of course, to make it creepier) in which all crime is legal, including murder. High-level government officials are exempt from being murdered, naturally — the new founding fathers are no fools. Presumably, all manner of white-collar hijinks are also legal, but the movie ignores this aspect in favor of more exciting violent crimes.
Theoretically, the idea is that the evening purges the people’s “need” for violence by letting them indulge in crime once a year. The reality, however, is that it allows the well-to-do the opportunity to exterminate those pesky unemployed and homeless folks with impunity — as their patriotic duty, even. As a concept, it’s pretty chilling. As presented in the film, it looks pretty darn impractical. A hunting party of around 10 patriotic preppies spends the entire night trying to dispose of one homeless man, so the business of purging the nation of its less “useful” members in this manner would seem to be on the inefficient side. Like so many things in the film, it works better if you don’t think about it. We are, after all, dealing with a movie in which people engaging in perfectly legal homicide feel compelled to wear masks, which must impede their vision considerably. I guess it’s the price you pay for style.
The film itself is considerably less than its concept and quickly becomes little more than an excuse to turn the whole thing into a pretty standard home-invasion thriller — with a surprising lack of character motivation and a good deal less sense. At bottom, it’s all about a well-to-do (mostly from making a killing on home security systems that look like high-tech versions of those automatic steel shutters that trap the cast in old dark houses in the 1930s) family finding themselves under siege when their son (TV actor Max Burkholder) takes pity on a potential Purge victim (TV actor Edwin Hodge) and lets him into the house. The Purge party — led by Australian actor Rhys Wakefield (Sanctum) — takes issue with this and wants him back, but since they’ve cut the power to the house, poor homeowner James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) can’t even locate the miscreant. A lot of running around in the dark and not very persuasive sub-Straw Dogs mayhem follows — interspersed with clunky exchanges about the morality of it all. That’s about it, apart from a twist that you’ll probably see coming, giving you time to ponder what the governmental price tag for cleaning up the aftermath of these shenanigans must be.
So what do you get for your 85 minutes? Well, there’s an interesting — if terminally far-fetched — premise that no one bothered to really work out except for its violence potential. Then there’s its largely B- and C-list cast being forced to behave in improbable ways to keep things going. Plus, there’s a transparent and really dumb subplot about the daughter (TV actress Adelaide Kane) being “too old for her” boyfriend (TV actor Tony Oller), but that goes nowhere. Have you seen worse? Sure. I suppose you could call this efficient, but that stops short of being a recommendation. Rated R for strong disturbing violence and some language.
Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Cinemas, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande