Some movies have good premises that get squandered in the execution, but The Purge is the other way around. It takes a bad premise and makes it work, more or less. You won't believe that any part of it is even remotely plausible, but you'll go along with it enough to get a few thrills.
The premise is that in the not-too-distant future, America has almost no unemployment and very little crime. (No, that's not the implausible part.) What either led to this or is how it is maintained -- the movie isn't clear on which came first -- is The Purge, where all crime, including murder, is legalized once a year for 12 hours. During that time, you can do whatever you want (using up to a certain class of weapon) to whomever you want (up to a certain level of political standing) without legal consequences.
If you're having trouble figuring out how an annual half-day of wantonness keeps employment up and crime down, you're not alone, and watching the movie won't help much. The general idea is that giving law and order a day off lets people vent the violent tendencies that otherwise build up and erupt unpredictably. Feel like murdering somebody? Don't! Save it for Purge Night!
The film's opening credits include a montage of surveillance footage from past Purges, in which people all over the country are seen beating one another to death in the streets. (Aside: All anybody wants to do is murder. Nobody wants to rape or steal??) Unfortunately, this misrepresents the rest of the movie, which isn't about the widespread mayhem and chaos you'd get in a Purge, but is much, much smaller in scope, focusing on a single family's ordeal while barricaded in their home. That's not nearly as interesting as a story addressing the larger societal impact, but so be it.
The family, the Sandins, live in an affluent gated community. As you'd imagine, the people most likely to come out of the Purge unscathed are the ones who can afford sturdy locks and impenetrable windows, and James Sandin (Ethan Hawke, clean-shaven for once) has made a handsome living selling security systems to his neighbors. On the night of the Purge, which commences at 7 p.m., James and his wife, Mary (Lena Headey), teenage daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane), and younger son Charlie (Max Burkholder) hunker down for a cautious but mostly unafraid night at home. "We can afford protection, so we'll be fine," Dad says, laying out the film's 99%-vs-1% subtext.
Two complications arise. One is that Mary's boyfriend, Henry (Tony Oller), who's older than she is and not approved of by her father, is determined to have a man-to-man talk with him at this highly inopportune time. The other is that a bloodied stranger (Edwin Hodge) is running down the street pleading for help and being ignored by all the families tucked safely away in their fortress-like homes. If the Sandins show him compassion, there's a chance it will backfire. This is the danger of compassion, and why you should never try it.
What The Purge really is, it turns out, is a home-invasion thriller. Writer/director James DeMonaco's premise gives it a twist, but it's essentially the familiar "people want to get into our house and do us harm" scenario. What makes it work is the quiet, tense atmosphere and details like the cult-ish group of masked figures who descend on the house, led by a preppy kid (Rhys Wakefield) with a polite manner and a chilling grin.
The film is a streamlined 85 minutes long, and nothing about it is elaborate. But there's a fine line between sparseness and thinness, and too often The Purge falls on the wrong side of it. It needs more backstory, more fleshing-out, and a more finely tuned examination of human nature. DeMonaco has some things to say about our society, which is fine. They'd go down more smoothly, though, if it didn't seem like he was rushing from one point to the next. You've got 12 hours! Take your time!
The Purge opens wide in theatres across North America on Friday, June 7.