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. (How could you live with your neighbor 364 days of the year knowing that he might have just taken a machete to a co-worker the night before?) 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 a couple of things happen to destabilize the situation. 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 on the Sandins’ doorstep, demanding that the family release the injured stranger as their rightful prey or risk annihilation. With the exception of their stoically courteous leader (Rhys Wakefield), they all wear creepy, if faintly ridiculous, masks and prance around as if they’re on acid.
As it turns out, the security system isn’t so foolproof. It also turns out that James isn’t all that decent, either, as his first choice is to throw the asylum seeker to the wolves.
Soon, the Sandins find themselves battling not just for their lives, but for their very souls.
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” (either the 1971 version or the 2011 remake), 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.
Why masks, for instance? They seem less about hiding — i.e., an allusion to shame or guilt that might humanize the killers — than about what works in scary movies. The killers wear them not because they need to, but because we need them to.
Which brings me to what’s most effective, yet also most troubling, about “The Purge.” Judging from the spontaneous applause that broke out during certain scenes of carnage — good guys blowing away bad guys, of course — we’re not that far away, after all, from the society depicted in the film. The people of 2022 may “release the beast” by slaughtering their fellow Americans. In 2013, that’s still what we go to the movies for.