Great ideas come along once in a blue moon. With today's state of cinema that is inundated with superhero movies, sequels and adaptations from other media, it's like a breath of fresh air when a movie comes along that is completely original and free of a man in tights or a number at the end of its title.
But coming up with an idea is only half the equation. The idea must be expanded upon. A movie can't survive on an idea alone. Unfortunately, "The Purge" is of the great-idea-bad-execution variety. It sets up its intriguing premise with promises of social commentary on our culture of violence, but then does nothing with it and relegates itself to what amounts to nothing more than a bland home invasion thriller.
The year is 2022. Unemployment rests at a mere one percent and crime is practically non-existent. This drop in poverty and crime is due to one thing, an annual event called the Purge. For one night each year, all crime is legal, no matter how heinous. If you want to murder your neighbor or rape the pretty girl at the office or loot a home of its valuables, you're free to do so with no fear of consequence.
Most families who can afford to have barricaded themselves in their homes thanks to James (Ethan Hawke), a salesman who has gotten rich from selling security systems to his surrounding neighbors. He and his wife, Mary (Lena Headey), have one of the systems themselves and are planning on having a quiet evening at home. However, when their son, Charlie (Max Burkholder) opens their doors to a man being attacked, the masked attackers demand to have him back. They have a short amount of time to find the man in their home and force him back outside or they'll use their tools to break through their security system and kill each and every one of them.
So despite a compelling premise that could spin hundreds of intriguing stories about people all around the country during the Purge, it narrows its scope to one tiny space, a handful of characters and a banal, run-of-the-mill story. Take the premise away and this is 2008's "The Strangers," only not half as scary or interesting.
"The Purge" quickly abandons its unique identity and falls back on tried and true horror tropes, like when the power goes out and the characters get stuck in what I like to call a Horror Movie Blackout, where everything is tinted blue and a flashlight covers far more area than its actual spread. Other films can get away with this due to the moonlight covering outside areas or infiltrating homes through windows, but metal barricades block every door and window here. Aside from one small rectangular portion that allows them to see outside, the entire house should be cloaked in darkness.
Of course, this is a minor problem in a movie with such sluggish pacing. Even at a brisk 85 minutes, "The Purge" feels too long and relies almost entirely on slow walking through a darkened house to build its suspense. Some of these moments are effective due to a minimal use of music or ambient noise—besides, silence can sometimes be scarier than any gradually building score—but they are too frequent to truly work, especially given that the true bad guys are safely planted outside for the majority of the film. Cut out the slow walking and you have a movie that's barely an hour.
With its focus on a single family on a single horrifying night, what "The Purge" needed more than anything else was established characters with real personalities and a family dynamic that rang true. You can really only find true fear within the viewer if they care about the characters they're watching (which is something Ethan Hawke's last genre endeavor, "Sinister," nailed). Although an attempt is made early on before the night turns grim, it's a lousy attempt, one that is too obvious and superficial to work. It's quite clear from the get-go that this movie was built around its idea rather than its characters, all of whom seem like an afterthought.
While "The Purge" is by no means terrible, its failure to expand upon its ideas is frustrating. Aside from its brief look at our culture of violence, it also postulates the idea through onscreen television news stories that the event is a way to purge the world of the weak, the poor and those without value that have nothing to contribute to society, a Final Solution if you will. It teeters on the edge of the question, is this the way to truly redeem society? To lower unemployment? To fix the economy? Does isolated evil justify the widespread good that can come from it? But then it never answers those questions or expands on them enough to let us intellectualize them ourselves.
The final twist that introduces new characters with admittedly ridiculous motivations nevertheless proposes the idea that such barbarism is simply a part of human nature, but that's as close as it ever gets to anything intellectually stimulating. Not all movies need some deep meaning to succeed, but "The Purge" isn't particularly thrilling or scary, so its idea is all it has left. By not expanding on it, it loses nearly all of its appeal.