"The Purge" is a morality play wrapped in the typical trappings of a horror film. There are some holes in the script, but overall the movie offers a few chills both for its message and its massacres.
In the year 2022, a government-sanctioned day of criminal activity has reduced unemployment and saved the economy. Once a year — for 12 hours — there are no rules. The public is urged to commit any crime it wants without any fear of prosecution. It's being passed off as a way for all the people to vent the anger that builds inside them the rest of the year.
James Sandin (Ethan Hawke), a family man who's made a great living selling security systems, locks down his home for the night. An act of compassion makes his family the target of a marauding band of preppie killers who give him an ultimatum — he can turn over the man the group originally planned to kill, or his family will be attacked.
This is where the script by director James DeMonaco takes on a more cerebral level than the average slice-and-dice horror movie. There are some big questions posed, such as: How far will a person go to save his family? Even the reasons for the Purge become suspect when it's suggested that it's a trumped up version of social cleansing, since it's the poor, weak and aged who can't protect themselves in the annual bloodbath.
DeMonaco strikes a nice balance between the message and the mayhem as he bounces between the philosophical demons inside the Sandin home and the sadistic demons waiting outside. The most terrifying of the home invasion horde is played by Rhys Wakefield, whose polite nature makes him all the more creepy.
The problem with DeMonaco's story is that there are few surprises. He does a good job of building tension — especially with music that sounds like the last moans of a dying man — but the plot twists are obvious and that eliminates any pure shock value.
There are also some points where better writing would have strengthened the story. Hawke's character makes an unlikely Rambo transformation when his family is threatened. One line of dialogue about special defense training would have set some groundwork for why he's such a competent warrior.
It's sad the morality part of the story comes across as an afterthought. A more in-depth look at this idea of sanctioned genocide would have kept the movie from settling into a typical tale of terror.
"The Purge," rated R for violence, language. Stars Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Max Burkholder, Rhys Wakefield. Directed by James DeMonaco. Running time: 85 minutes. Grade: B-
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.