The latest "home invasion" thriller The Purge can be approached like that old cliché about optimists and pessimists. Those who say the glass is half empty may dismiss the flick as a clever sci-fi concept that gets wedged into a very conventional horror story. Those who think the glass is half full will believe that The Purge is (yes, another) "home invasion" thriller that earns a lot of points for introducing a few novel ingredients into a potentially stale concept.
One can almost imagine screenwriter James DeMonaco thinking "I want to do a modern home invasion thriller in an affluent and densely-populated area, but how do I get rid of the cops? That's the hard part!" And then he cracked it. The film takes place ten years in the future. There's now an annual event called The Purge. It means you're allowed to commit any crime you want for twelve hours. No cops, no charges, nothing.
If it already sounds like the "purge" concept is ten times more interesting than the "home invasion" idea, you're not alone. If The Purge suffers from one thing (and truth be told it suffers from more than one thing), it's that it barely scratches the surface of a truly fascinating idea. But since we're here to talk about what's on the screen (and not what isn't), it's nice to note that The Purge is actually a solid little thriller with numerous worthwhile components.
Mr. DeMonaco (the co-writer of The Negotiator and Assault on Precinct 13, making his directorial debut here) manages to explain how "the purge" works, and why our government has deemed it not only necessary but actually cathartic, but most of the interesting stuff is delivered in hurried fashion via TV news-flashes. It's rare to find a horror film I wish was a little longer, but this one speeds through a first act that's pretty interesting but not nearly substantial enough.
Once the lights go down and "The Purge" begins, things manage to get rather fast-paced, kinetic, and suspenseful -- even if a lot of the smashed windows and hallway brawls might feel a little familiar to anyone who has seen Them, The Strangers, or any other home invasion movie. DeMonaco does have a few cool twists in store, and The Purge is as its best when it's dealing in the greyer areas of morality. Our hero, James Sandin, is the home security master who allows his wealthy neighbors to remain safe during "the purge," and the invaders are a gang of entitled young monsters who honestly feel they have a patriotic "right" to murder the injured homeless man who has hidden away in the Sandins' suburban fortress. We have a threat outside, an unknown intruder inside, the "home security master" at a loss, and his wife and children in desperate trouble.
So while a good portion of The Purge is somewhat standard "stalk, attack, revenge" horror material, it's also laced with an appreciable sense of pointed social commentary. It's all pretty simple "haves vs. have-nots" and "morality vs. money" material, but it's also evidence of a filmmaker who is at least trying to add some smart ideas into a simple concept. That the film features typically excellent work from Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey certainly doesn't hurt. That The Purge offers a cool concept, some decent suspense, a few intense shocks, and a surprisingly audacious finale in less than 88 brisk minutes... that just makes me like it even more.