In the annals of terrible American ideas — the War on Drugs, the sequester, chocolate bubble gum, “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” — the worst may be the titular event of “The Purge.” Nine years from now U.S. unemployment and crime are at absurd lows, with the wee little catch that for one night a year, all violent crime is totally legal and even celebrated as patriotic. Twelve hours of murder sprees and violent beatings is all it takes, apparently, for people to “release the beast” and then simmer down for the other 364.5 days a year. It’s like shaking your sillies out, except with machetes and shotguns.
“The Purge” plops us into the home of the Sandins on the big night. The dad (Ethan Hawke) is a home security salesman who actively supports the Purge but does not himself partake. Business has boomed, making him rich enough to live in a mini-mansion nestled on a quiet suburban cul-de-somewhere. The mom (a black-bobbed Lena Headey, still recognizable as Cersei from “Game of Thrones”) cooks dinner and then drinks a glass of wine. The daughter (Adelaide Kane) has a hunky boyfriend and a short plaid skirt. The son (Max Burkholder) likes tinkering with a remote-controlled car with a camera. They seem like nice folks, if perhaps annoyingly flush. A neighbor says as much: All the security systems on the block helped pay for the new addition on the family’s house, and don’t you know that gets folks chirping with the Purge coming on?
The implications of the Purge, as it’s presented, are slathered in violence and in class critique, and for the first 20 or 30 minutes, a fun clump of dread coagulates in your belly. Commentators in the movie point out, ever so sensibly, that the effects of his annual blood-orgy fall disproportionately on the poor, who can’t afford the fancy locks and bars and moats and portcullises and whatnot that the 1 percent deploy to repel the rabble. And then you think about how America actually works right now, and who does face violence, and about who could even push wanton massacre through Congress — what did those committee hearings sound like, anyway? — but oh, wait, more than two-thirds of the House actually did vote to authorize force in Iraq, speaking of bad ideas, so who knows, maybe America is capable of anything, and we should all wait till our concealed carries come through before braving such possible battle zones as barbecues and Sunday school and trick-or-treating.
Meanwhile, back in the actual movie, the promise of “The Purge” evaporates as it becomes clear that director/writer James DeMonaco has taken a ol’ big bite off of ‘muricah and neglected to chew. In the hour after the Purge begins, at least one incredibly stupid (and ultimately unexplained) thing happens, followed by a more plausible event when a man outside (Edwin Hodge, billed in the credits as “bloody stranger”) calls out for help. Some highly unpleasant strangers, led by the smug elevated cheekbones of Rhys Wakefield, show up outside and insist that they’re coming inside. Then: cat-and-mouse, a single ethical dilemma to hang the entire story on, cat-and-mouse, bang-bang-axe-stab-bang-bang, etc. It’s several shades too dopey to be taken seriously, too tendentious to let you revel in its campiness.
Crazy thing is, this movie cost a $3 million pittance to make and hauled in $34 million over its first weekend, tops in the country. It was a rare summer coup by a small-budget pic. It stomped “The Internship.” America has spoken, and it prefers a dystopian eat-the-rich fantasy over a comedy about finding work. ‘Cause who these days believes the latter?