A stock home-invasion thriller made moderately more interesting by a thin veneer of pop psychology, “The Purge” asks us to believe that, in nine short years, American society will have become so depraved that our government will grant us one night a year to indulge our inner Neanderthals with impunity.
Set in 2022 during an annual 12-hour event known as Purge Night, the movie follows the efforts of a suburban family to fight off a pack of masked killers who are taking advantage of the evening’s temporary suspension of law and order. Purge Night’s slogan? “Release the beast.”
The Purge, which allows citizens to blow off steam by doing pretty much anything they want to each other and get off scot-free, is the price we will soon pay for 1 percent unemployment and otherwise nonexistent crime. Take note, Congress.
Never mind that this setup doesn’t make much sense. Writer-director James DeMonaco does manage to wring a certain macabre humor out of the premise as the film opens with a man sharpening a giant blade on his neatly manicured front lawn, for all the cul-de-sac to see.
But the heroes of “The Purge” aren’t like that. Salesman James Sandin and his wife, Mary (Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey), are decent law-abiders, living in a tidy McMansion that has been fortified with the same state-of-the-art security systems that he has sold to all his neighbors. As Purge Night descends on their home – along with steel shutters – James and Mary curl up with a small arsenal of guns for what they hope will be just another quiet night in front of their glowing security monitors, with their kids, Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and Charlie (Max Burkholder), tucked safely into bed.
But Zoey’s boyfriend (Tony Oller) has sneaked into the house before curfew so he can talk to James about why Zoey has been forbidden to see him. And then Charlie, the family’s soft-hearted son, lets in a wounded man (Edwin Hodge) whom he spots on one of the house’s security cameras, crying for help.
Next, the power is cut after a bloodthirsty gang materializes, demanding that the family release the injured stranger.
This adds a level of moral intrigue that raises the film a cut above the caliber of other such slasher films.
Still, it’s no “Straw Dogs,” let alone “Funny Games.” Those disturbing works used the home-invasion scenario to question the notions of machismo and revenge and the modern fascination with movie violence.
“The Purge” is more of a nutty if bloody lark, with a strange artificiality to the behaviors it portrays. That blunts the sharpness of any cultural critique it might aspire to.