The film is built around the premise that, for one evening in a year (7PM to 7AM) all crime is legal, including murder. So those people not interested in getting killed, or indulging in a little Ultra-Violence of their own, should stay indoors, behind securely locked doors.
That is what James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) and his family plan to do for the night. His wife Mary (Lena Headey) has cooked a nice dinner, his daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane) is bidding her secret boyfriend adieu, and Charlie (Max Burkholder) is monitoring his own vitals so that he can report to the family that he is stable as America settles in for the annual purge.
Now the idea of The Purge itself feels different from a lot of the premises that populate slasher movies, and thinking that any individual who might be out on the streets is potentially a killer, or prey, is quite a terrifying one. A montage of CC-TV footage at the beginning of the movie gives us a sense of what previous purges have been like. The idea is also offered up, that The Purge is just a means of getting rid of the poor, the weak, the old, and the sick.
So, Big Ideas. Too bad about the execution.
The first third of the movie is relatively tense, and even the pace at which the protective shutters are lowered around the Sandin household causes a frisson of concern. And as the trailer informs us, the Sandin family is brought under threat by a group of pleasure seekers when Charlie lets a stranger (Edwin Hodge) into the house — a stranger that the group led by an overly polite, and extremely creep dude (Rhys Wakefield), was hunting.
It is a comment on the filmmaking as well as the size of the Sandin family home that several times through this movie’s anemic running time, the parents don’t know here the kids are. They also have no clue where the stranger is hiding, inside their own home. And when it becomes convenient, the family’s solid-sounding security measures are very quickly disabled.
The Purge is bigger on atmosphere than jump scares. Which means that the tension needs to be played like a finely-tuned instrument. Moments after the purgers make their threats and cut the Sandins’ power, the movie becomes little more than people running around in the dark, breathing heavily, and waving flashlights around.
Final Analysis: Good idea. Terrible execution.
My Advice: Wait for the sequel. The first movie made enough money to greenlight a second. The increased character count in the new movie offers the possibility of a more promising narrative.