America is prosperous, safe and once again shining on its hill in 2022, the year "The Purge" takes place. But young Charlie Sandin has a question for his father: Why, on one night each year, are all crimes made legal -- including murder?
Well, son, it's complicated. But James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) knows one thing: He's made a mint selling steel-shutter security systems, and when the annual Purge arrives -- March 21st at 7 p.m. -- the Sandins will be the safest upper-income family on the block. So what if the violence mostly affects the poor? "You don't remember how bad it was, Charlie," dad splutters. "The poverty, the crime. This night saved our country."
The vague posters for "The Purge" won't prepare you for how sharp and shockingly subversive this home-invasion flick can be. The delicious premise comes from writer-director James DeMonaco, who has more on his mind than merely piling up bodies (though he does that, too). His futuristic America -- in which wealthy suburbanites live in gun-filled McMansions while the poor expire around them -- is really just an exaggeration of the current one.
Charlie (Max Burkholder) kick-starts the action by sheltering a homeless man (Edwin Hodge) from a gang of predatory prep-school types (Rhys Wakefield plays their grinning blond leader). What follows is a mix of Sam Peckinpah's classic "Straw Dogs" and Michael Haneke's two "Funny Games" films, as the mild-mannered Sandins must make difficult choices and tap into their inner animals.
"The Purge" often falls short of its ambitions. Though Hawke is convincing as a well-heeled family man, his support cast (Lena Headey and Adelaide Kane play James' wife and teenage daughter, respectively) is less impressive. The young attackers, basically the usual giggling sadists wearing creepy masks, disappoint slightly. And DeMonaco's direction -- this is his second film -- never quite matches the savagery of his ideas.
Still, if the execution earns a B, the effort deserves an A-plus. In the midst of summer's predictably complacent entertainment, "The Purge" is a nice, nasty surprise.
PLOT In a future America, any and all crimes are legal for one night each year.
RATING R (strong disturbing violence and some language)
CAST Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Rhys Wakefield
BOTTOM LINE Come for the horror -- stay for the social satire! Smart, funny and unexpectedly subversive, this home-invasion flick packs its punches where you least expect them.