That old horror-movie standard, a homestead besieged by psychos, gets remixed with a bit of Occupy-era class-conflict satire in the disappointing future-set thriller “The Purge.” Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey are interestingly cast, slightly against type, as a smug couple defending their family against murderous intruders on the one night of the year when any crime, even murder, gets a free pass. But while writer-helmer James DeMonaco’s scenario echoes the fiction of J.G. Ballard and even “The Hunger Games,” the film’s thudding shocks and predictability dull its edge. “Purge” took a not-so cathartic $1.5 million over the weekend in Blighty; it looks to do proportionally modest biz when it opens Stateside on Friday.
It’s the year 2022, and some very wacky regime with a religious agenda (given how often the authorities mention God) has taken control of America. Starting on March 22, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., anyone can commit any crime he or she likes with impunity in the name of the Purge, so called because it’s meant to purge the populace’s violent feelings in one fell swoop. “Non-contributing members of society” (in other words, poor people) are the ones most frequently victimized, leading some bleeding-heart dissenters to suspect it’s all a means of eradicating undesirables and regulating the population. Nevertheless, most ordinary citizens support the nationwide bloodletting, which they believe has led to a reborn nation with virtually no unemployment and super-low crime rates for the rest of the year.
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With a business installing home-security systems, James Sandin (Hawke) has done very well with the Purge. Along with pretty 16-year-old daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and nerdy 14-year-old son, Charlie (Max Burkholder), James and his wife, Mary (Headey, tapping some of that glacial hauteur she does so well in “Game of Thrones”), live in a massive McMansion in a gated community (filmed in Chatsworth, Calif.). Early chitchat between Mary and across-the-street neighbor Grace (Arija Bareikis) before the 7 p.m. Purge-night kickoff neatly hints that the Sandins’ wealth and ostentatious fortress of a home have alienated them from their envious neighbors, making it unlikely that help will come when trouble starts.
The clock strikes 7 and James brings down the steel shutters, all ready for a night spend indoors watching the mayhem broadcast live on TV. But Charlie, using the spy cameras trained on the street outside, spots a man (Edwin Hodge) fleeing from a mob and lets him hide inside the house. The spooky, mask-clad crew — the guys in college blazers, the girls in blood-splattered white frocks, and all sporting machetes and assault rifles — surrounds the Sandins’ house. Their well-spoken, clearly middle-class leader (Aussie thesp Rhys Wakefield, marvelously creepy, especially when seen through a fish-eye lens) demands they give up the “homeless pig” or be slaughtered alongside him once they break in.
As the family debates the ethics of surrendering the stranger — if they can find him in the dark, once the power is cut — it becomes clear that there’s more than one intruder afoot, apart from the crazies in the masks. The film’s midsection thus gets bogged down with a lot of searching and stalking through darkened corridors with flashlights and guns, as members of the family become isolated from one another and all the more vulnerable when the defenses are inevitably breached. At least lenser Jacques Jouffret, a regular collaborator with Michael Bay, gets to show off how well he can shoot night footage, to the extent that “The Purge” almost feels like a showreel for new techniques in digital cinematography.
Editor Peter Gvozdas is another Bay alumnus, but this low-budget effort feels influenced less by the franchise-king destroyer of worlds than by the work of another of the pic’s producers, Jason Blum, best known for the “Paranormal Activity” series as well as “Sinister” and “Insidious.” Certainly the it’s-behind-you shocks feel like stock moments from the horror-movie playbook, and the story’s plodding trajectory feels all too bland, considering the inventive streak De Monaco displayed in his earlier efforts. (This is the director’s third collaboration with Hawke, having previously produced “Assault on Precinct 13” and written and directed the underrated if barely seen “Staten Island”).
At its best, the film has moments that recall higher-toned dystopian fiction, particularly the cycle of suburban noir reworked over and over again by Ballard in novels like “Running Wild,” “Cocaine Nights” and “Super-Cannes,” as well as trashier movie pleasures like “The Stepford Wives.” Auxiliary prospects could be improved by cult status.