James DeMonaco's The Purge aims to combine old-fashioned Twilight Zone-inspired social commentary with the jumps and scare tactics of a modern-day home-invasion horror film. Sadly, thanks to a ridiculous premise, ugly cinematography, one-dimensional characters, and indecipherable editing, it fails on both counts.
Set in 2022 as crime in America is practically nonexistent and the unemployment rate hovers just above zero percent, the movie stars Ethan Hawke as James Sandin, a security-system salesman whose business is booming because the annual event that gives the film its title is coming up. America is now under the command of "the New Founding Fathers," and they have instituted a once-a-year 12-hour period during which all crime is legal, police and hospitals do not respond to distress calls, and the members of society that are supposedly dragging everyone else down are slaughtered by the well-to-do, who are so cleansed of their hate that they can remain productive members of civil society for the next 364 days and 12 hours.
As James settles in with his family -- wife Mary (Lena Headey), older daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane), and young son Charlie (Max Burkholder) -- in their fortified estate to watch news coverage of the national chaos, Charlie sees a wounded man wandering the street, begging for help. In a moment of humanity, the boy disengages the elaborate security system and lets the man into their house. The rest of the clan doesn't know if they can trust this bleeding stranger, but soon the Sandins must deal with a bloodthirsty group of masked vigilantes -- led by a blonde, well-spoken preppy type -- who want to kill the injured man they are sheltering.
The main bad guy is a clear allusion to Michael Haneke's thriller Funny Games, a movie that purposefully upset its audience in order to get them to think about their relationship to cinematic violence. The Purge is like Funny Games if it had been made not by a European provocateur, but by a schlocky American producer looking to make a fast buck. The screenplay makes flailing attempts to present itself as something meaningful -- James says that his company's security system works 99 percent of the time, a blatant nod to the subtext The Purge strives for -- but the kills are staged to maiximize the audience's cathartic release. It looks like we're supposed to cheer, but there's nobody you like enough to root for.
In a final twist, the movie finally gets around to making its deeper point: The one percent should fear the have-lesses even more than the have-nots. Sadly, by that point we've been through a litany of by-the-numbers horror clichés (guess how James gets out of a jam during a fistfight in his billiard room) and are left without any characters to care about. The Purge is a cynically made film that acts like it wants to be taken seriously, when it really wants nothing more than to take your money.