If you had to defend your family from a world free to murder and main, you’d think a system of defenses would be a wise investment—or at least something more than a few metal plates over the doors that can apparently easily be torn off with a length of chain and an F-150. Why not a panic room, in case murdering-and-maiming humanity got past the tin foil on the windows? Especially if you were (according to the script) the best salesperson of freaking home security systems in the neighborhood! But that logical flaw is just one of a ridiculous number of missteps in “The Purge.”
If on one night every year, you could commit any crime without facing consequences, what would you do? In The Purge, a speculative thriller that follows one family over the course of a single night, four people will be tested to see how far they will go to protect themselves when the vicious outside world breaks into their home. In an America wracked by crime and overcrowded prisons, the government has sanctioned an annual 12-hour period in which any and all criminal activity-including murder-becomes legal. The police can’t be called. Hospitals suspend help. It’s one night when the citizenry regulates itself without thought of punishment. On this night plagued by violence and an epidemic of crime, one family wrestles with the decision of who they will become when a stranger comes knocking. When an intruder breaks into James Sandin’s (Ethan Hawke) gated community during the yearly lockdown, he begins a sequence of events that threatens to tear a family apart. Now, it is up to James, his wife, Mary (Lena Headey), and their kids to make it through the night without turning into the monsters from whom they hide. (Synopsis by Universal)
I can’t fault any of the actors for this atrocity. Even the gooney performances of the murderous gang are better than they should be. Hawke’s acceptance of the role is questionable, coming at about the same time as his stellar turn in the upcoming “Before Midnight.” Even for a stupid horror-thriller—and this certainly is one—this isn’t just crappy, but pretentiously crappy. In the muck of the script are several half-developed attempts to make a socio-economic commentary.
The blunt force trauma of these half-assed ideas is what really pushes this one over the edge. You could get behind “The Purge” if it was just stupid, mindless fun. It could be enjoyable if there were elements of tongue-in-cheek social commentary. But the movie occupies the awkward middle ground of trying to make a “for serious” point when nothing about it can really be taken seriously—it comes off like a drunk guy at a party sharing his political views.
The reasons society partakes in an annual murderous rampage are unimportant to the action of the story, unless you are going to fully develop that idea. You can’t just leave it at “it lowers crime because it’s a psychological release” and “we need to.” That kind of explanation is along the lines of “the Middle East hates us because of our freedom.” It’s a cute statement, but falls apart with any thought. Either explain The Purge more fully, or treat it as table setting, ignore the whys and wherefores completely, and get on with the action.
The truth is there is a really good idea here, it just can’t pick a direction. “The Purge” tries to be too many different movies and fails spectacularly at being any of them. And that’s before the viewer finds more plot holes than “Back to the Future.” Throw in some horror clichés and plot “twists” on top and this is an epic mess.
For some inexplicable reason, the main characters all operate under the premise that they should run off into the darkness of the compromised house full of murderous psychopaths at the slightest hint of danger. It’s the worst example of the traditional horror movie cliché of taking a shower just before getting murdered, or saying “I’ll be right back.” Then there’s the attempts to keep the audience uncertain who the good guys and bad guys are. Hint: every role reversal you expect happens. Surprise! Did I mention there’s also the crappy “night vision hand held” camera trick from “Paranormal Activity?” Or the “somebody is going to jump out and shock you” gag?
The cast tries to keep this one on track, but by the finale this film is the equivalent of Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm-Flailing Tubeman. The only great debate after watching this is which represents the greater loss: the squandered potential or your squandered money.
“See It/ Rent It/ Skip It”: Skip it. It was bad enough to get catcalls for refunds at a free screening.
HALF STAR out of four.
Directed by James DeMonaco
Rated R for strong, disturbing violence and some language.
Runtime: 1 hr. and 25 mins.