Characters are frequently urged to "release the beast" in "The Purge," a high-concept home-invasion shocker set in a future where one night a year, all crime is legal. But what should be a clammy exercise in claustrophobic, queasy tension becomes, in the hands of writer/director James DeMonaco, an underpowered compendium of over-familiar scare tactics and sledgehammer-subtle social satire. The intriguingly nightmarish premise may well rustle up a decent opening weekend for a picture that comes with the imprimatur of producer Michael Bay before the lukewarm word of mouth hastens its trip to DVD and VOD.
DeMonaco overloads "The Purge" with all kinds of cumbersome exposition, mostly delivered via TV-news broadcasts. It's 2022, and in the United States, crime and poverty have dwindled drastically since the election of the "New Founding Fathers" – presumably in 2014.
This thinly veiled fictional version of the tea party wasted no time in introducing "The Purge," a nationwide catharsis, which runs for 12 hours starting at 7 p.m. on March 21, during which time the violent, even homicidal unleashing of rage is positively encouraged as a patriotic duty.
While the plausibility of such an extreme scenario springing up in less than a decade is debatable, more feasible is the accompanying boom in private security spending as citizens who can afford to barricade themselves into their homes do so. This lines the pockets of folks like security-biz entrepreneur James Sandin (Ethan Hawke). But no "lockdown" is airtight, and the Sandin family find themselves under siege when they provide sanctuary to a homeless man (Edwin Hodge).
"The Purge" never threatens to become more than the sum of its various parts, however. And it's frustrating that while we hear about the horrors unfolding elsewhere in the country, all we see is brief glimpses of surveillance-camera footage that hint at unbridled savagery. Instead, DeMonaco seldom strays beyond the thresholds of the Sundin's mansion, with characters forever wandering in the dark down long corridors or through different rooms.