Buying into the premise is the major obstacle for The Purge, a psychological thriller set in a hypothetical future that does a decent job of conveying its dystopian vision.
Yet while the concept is fresh and mildly provocative, the execution is lackluster in this subversive examination of contemporary suburban violence, which gradually drains the credibility from its intriguing if cynical futuristic idea.
The story is set in 2022, on a spring day that has become known as the Annual Purge, a concept introduced by the government that allows a 12-hour period in which all crimes – including murder – are legal, as an outlet for aggression and vengeance. The result has supposedly led to historically low unemployment and violent crime rates during the rest of the year, but also has created a dangerous socioeconomic divide.
James (Ethan Hawke) has become rich by selling elaborate security systems to protect families during the Purge. As he goes into ritualistic lockdown with his wife (Lena Headey) and two teenage children, however, James soon realizes that the biggest threat to their safety comes from within his own house, and that his quiet neighborhood is not as friendly as he thought.
It’s nice to see a gritty horror film that smartly uses its claustrophobic setting, and a science-fiction effort that doesn’t rely on aliens or zombies, in which both the heroes and villains are humans with a hint of authenticity.
However, the script from director James DeMonaco (who wrote the screenplay for the remake of Assault on Precinct 13, among others) could have used more subtlety with its obvious sociopolitical message, along with fewer cheap thrills.
The pace remains taut, but DeMonaco doesn’t seem to have the courage to follow his convictions, instead settling for obvious plot twists and gimmicky contrivances. The film asks viewers to think in realistic terms about its premise in the first half, then shut down their brains after that.
Ultimately, The Purge settles too often sacrifices suspense for gratuitous gore (essentially celebrating the reckless violence it halfheartedly tries to condemn). Add in an anticlimactic final showdown that’s more formulaic than frightening, and the original idea is jettisoned in favor of conventional scare tactics.
Rated R, 85 minutes.