Starring Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey. Written and directed by James DeMonaco. 14A. 85 min. Opens June 7.
The Purge is a putrid slab of speculative science-fiction that asks the question: What if the American government allowed all crime to be legal for one night every year? Well, obviously, chaos would ensue. The worst thing about James DeMonaco’s film is that it can’t even deliver a few good shocks within its lame-brained allegory about haves and have-nots.
Stuffed into a dress shirt and growling like Nick Nolte, Ethan Hawke plays James Sandin, a designer of high-tech security systems. James has gotten rich by peddling peace of mind (and impenetrable steel bars) to fellow elites who must annually barricade their homes against “The Purge,” a government-sponsored initiative where even murder is allowable for a 12-hour period. The film is set in 2022, and we’re informed that this occasion is an established national institution. Still, the characters (including James’s wife, played by Lena Headey) spend an awful lot of time talking about it like it’s news—exposition that’s obviously for our benefit rather than theirs.
A leaner, smarter genre film would have simply plunged us into the elemental terror of this premise, letting us feel our way through the topsy-turvy logistics of a scenario where nothing is verboten. The Purge spends 20 minutes letting its creator wring his hands via the people onscreen, who are less characters in a drama than mouthpieces for a sociological critique. When a TV news report informs us that some people have suspicions that The Purge is really about the moneyed classes sitting back while the poor kill each other off, it’s less a gut-punch than an annoying nudge in the ribs.
Hawke is too good for this anguished-family man role, and the film contrives to turn him into an action hero. As he stalks through the darkened corridors of his fortress, pointing guns at the psycho-killers who’ve breached the walls in search of the hapless homeless man surreptitiously invited inside by James’s son, one can almost feel the actor mentally checking out. But his writer-director got there first.