Starring: Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Max Burkholder, Adelaide Kane
Rated: R, for strong disturbing violence and some language
Runtime: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Bottom line: Predictable horror movie disguised as sci-fi
“The Purge” suffers from an identity crisis.
For a while, it wants to be the grandchild of 1970s science fiction, an era of one-note concepts played out in thought-provoking, although usually schlocky, ways.
The setup is intriguing and, like its sci-fi forebears, pushes contemporary social buttons.
In 2022, America lives under a new Constitution (the movie repeatedly refers to the “new Founding Fathers”) that establishes an annual purge. For 12 hours, 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., during one night per year, all law is suspended.
Americans are allowed to commit any crime with impugnity — even murder. Emergency services, including the police, fire department and EMTs, will not respond during the purge.
This ritual has lowered the crime rate for the rest of the year to an all-time low. The prison overcrowding problem is eliminated. Unemployment is at 1 percent, since a significant portion of the potential workforce is reduced each year. Homelessness is rare because the homeless, most of whom are defenseless, are among the favorite targets of the purge.
As far as we know, most Americans support the purge. Some even throw parties and watch the live video feeds that show violence playing out in cities across the country.
Many, of course, partake in the purge by arming themselves and take to the streets to kill. Those murders are mostly random, just people purging their violent tendencies. Some use the purge, though, to take personal vengeance.
The premise is heavy-handed but fascinating. In one fell swoop, the movie culls up attitudes toward violent crime, guns, violent entertainment, personal security and national conscience, among others.
Mostly, though, it plays with the notion that humans need catharsis, a purging of the emotions and our destructive instincts. The flipside of that theory, though, is violent behavior and entertainment stimulate more violence.
We see both theories personified by the Sandin family. The father, James (Ethan Hawke), believes in the purge. Not that his opinion is unbiased. James sells home security systems, and the purge has made him extremely wealthy.
His son Charlie (Max Burkholder), however, is both obsessed with violence and wracked with guilt over the morality of the purge. The mother, Mary (Lena Headey), and daughter, Zoey (Adelaide Kane), are somewhere in the middle, troubled by the violence yet comfortable in the lifestyle the purge has afforded them.
The first act is promising. The concept provides numerous ethical dilemmas to explore, and there is pregnant tension not only within the family but also between the Sandins and their neighbors, who feel like they have paid for the Sandins’ palatial home by buying James’ security systems.
But then the identity crisis kicks in.
Charlie lets a homeless veteran (Edwin Hodge) into the house because he is being pursued by a mob of posh, demented kids out on a purge.
From that point on, “The Purge” becomes a standard home invasion horror movie that’s nowhere near as interesting as “Funny Games,” “Straw Dogs” or even “The Strangers.”
Most of the scenes play out like this. A member of the Sandin family is attacked by one of the purgers (I guess that’s what we call them). The purger has the Sandin pinned to the floor and raises a big blade. Just before the purger kills the Sandin, some other character shoots the purger from behind.
This happens so many times that I lost count. It quickly becomes redundant and boring.
The movie recovers a bit in the end by throwing in a twist and returning to the questions it initially raises. Just don’t expect anything insightful or terribly intelligent.
Like classic sci-fi movies, “The Purge” offers plenty of social commentary, but it’s all very broad and delivered with a blunt, incessant blow to the head.
“The Purge” is a decent B-movie that will satisfy those who like to purge their violent tendencies with an occasional horror movie. But it ultimately fails to deliver on its promises.
Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.