**1/2 (out of four)
If you think a thriller about people gleefully, legally killing each other sounds chilling, try this on for size: During the screening I attended for “The Purge,” many audience members laughed at this examination of human nature and clapped and cheered when a non-violent father must finally take lives himself.
The movie's not perfect, and it means for us to support James (Ethan Hawke of last week's “Before Midnight”) and his family, but please. Let's not take this lightly.
“The Purge” takes place in 2022, when once a year (from 7 p.m. March 21 to 7 a.m. March 22) all crime is legal throughout America. Though it would seem like prime vacation time, it plays out like a nationwide “Hunger Games” with voluntary participation and no prizes. Hate your boss? You can go all “Horrible Bosses” on him without consequences. Resent your neighbors? Feel free to stroll by their house and do something much, much worse than ask to borrow a cup of sugar.
Much of writer-director James DeMonaco's point, however, is that the purge--during which some folks hold purge parties and others just hole up and watch purge events on TV--becomes an opportunity for the rich to hunt the poor, like an extension of the horrifying YouTube videos featuring people beating the homeless. As he strives to protect his wife (Lena Headey) and two kids, James must decide what to do when a wealthy white kid bent on milking the purge for all it's worth demands that James release from his house a hiding homeless black man, dubbed “filthy swine” by the guy who wants to kill him, or face the consequences.
How disappointing, then, that DeMonaco's idea so bests his execution. A promising psychological thriller devolves into run-of-the-mill horror, with predictable jump-scares and people constantly being saved at the last second. It's intriguing and disturbing to consider what people might do with deadly permission, but “The Purge” would go a lot deeper into our terribly violent society had it explored the anger that builds up between ordinary citizens, and how it's normally released. Or just how folks in 2022 deal with the other 364 days of the year.
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