Mary Sandin (Lena Headey) and James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) make unthinkable choices in “The Purge.” Photo by Daniel McFadden/Universal Pictures
Mary Sandin (Lena Headey) and James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) make unthinkable choices in “The Purge.” Photo by Daniel McFadden/Universal Pictures
Arts Old - DO NOT USE - The Coast News Rancho Santa Fe

Film review: Leave the porch light off

The far-fetched futuristic concept, hollow acting, and empty scares of “The Purge” don’t justify its high body count and grievous attempts to tackle any questions regarding the dark side of humanity. 

In the year 2022, the United States is a changed country, prospering with relatively few problems regarding unemployment rates and crime. In order to maintain this peace and prosperity, however, the government establishes and enforces an annual 12-hour period in which every type of criminal activity — including murder and rape — becomes legal. During these violent moments, law enforcement and hospitals shut down all assistance services.

Apparently, this so-called “Purge” is meant to not only prevent the nation from falling prey to economic and social issues, but also allow people to vent their negative emotions in any manner they wish.

James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) plans to spend the night with his family, having installed a home security system to keep perpetrators out. The arrival of a bloodied stranger (Edwin Hodges) disrupts whatever plans the family had for this evening, and soon his pursuers arrive to claim him. If James, his wife Mary (Lena Headey), and their kids Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and Charlie (Max Burkholder) are to survive the night, they must fight without becoming the very monsters lurking outside and inside their home.

Although the controversial “what if” premise is bound to raise some eyebrows here and there, it doesn’t give the story much work to do. We catch glimpses of televised broadcasts featuring experts explaining why they feel “The Purge” is justified, but the consequences of its impact are never fully explored. The thinly scripted idea raises so many questions about human nature and leaves all of them unanswered, and to see it creep into the house of the Sandin family isn’t just ridiculous; it’s downright implausible.

Not for one second did I feel scared or terrified. Like most horror films nowadays, “The Purge” can’t seem to evoke painful feelings of disgust — two requirements the genre cannot do without. Every time a masked character jumps out of the steely blue shadows to attack the Sandins, there’s no buildup of dread to put the audience on its toes, nor is there any sense of revulsion to shock us after the bodies have fallen to the floor. And yes, the attackers’ smiley masks lose their creepiness before you have a chance to comprehend their actions.

And on top of that, the violence didn’t earn its R-rating. In fact, most of the shootings, stabbings, and beatings are of PG-13 quality — all of which make the problems I have with “The Purge” go from bad to worse. Had the film taken a few steps further to intensify the invaders’ violence against the Sandins and vice versa, then the shock value might’ve been more viscerally upsetting to the viewer’s eyes. Alas, the bloodshed we see is both disappointing and tame.

I really don’t have much to say about the cast; character development plays second fiddle to the scares and violence here. Ethan Hawke, who seems to have become the new go-to guy for horror flicks, is a blank-faced father whose facial expressions lack conviction. Lena Headey proves to be strictly okay in her performance as the mother, but she alone can’t stop “The Purge” from purging itself of all emotions.

Max Burkholder and Adelaide Kane are as one-dimensional as you’d expect kids to be in a scary movie. Edwin Hodge plays the bloody stranger, who makes a huge entrance and then disappears into the shadows, becoming less important as the night goes on. And while Rhys Wakefield’s exaggerated Joker grin is a disturbing sight to behold, you quickly start to wonder if he’s just some punk who couldn’t get enough of Halloween.

Word to the wise: don’t line up at the box office to see “The Purge,” whether you’re a horror fan or not. Do yourself a favor and spend time with your folks at home until this purging has ended.

MPAA rating: R for strong disturbing violence and some language.

Running time: 1 hour and 25 minutes

Playing: In general release