Here's a category idea for bar trivia: Collect one-sentence plot summaries of young-adult novel series and R-rated horror films, and see who can distinguish which from which. The one in which the kids kill each other for sport is approved by school districts for extra-credit reading, as is the one in which the government forces extreme plastic surgery on everybody. But the YA crowd will have to sneak into theaters showing The Purge even though it's exactly the same kind of chilling, violent, moralizing what-if tale — just with characters who say "fuck" once in a while.
Oh, and the lead — here, Ethan Hawke — never has to try on dresses or choose between complementary hunks.
The Purge's hook would be good for at least a trilogy of Scholastic originals. A decade from now, the U.S. has mostly solved its crime, unemployment, and homeless problems with one Hunger Games-style tweak: One night in March, it's perfectly legal for Americans to kill anyone. Experts on TV news overheard in the movie attest that the release offered by this "purge" keeps us from murdering each other the rest of the year. Others hem and haw over its trickle-down effect: With the wealthy locked down in their homes, it's the poor who tend to die on purge night, often at the hands of gangs of "hunters" sporting Occupy-like masks and shouting things like "Die, homeless pig!" The movie disapproves of this behavior, of course, but lends it ugly credence in the implication that the economy is booming thanks to the elimination of what Paul Ryan would call "the takers." Here at last is the inevitable crossover between Atlas Shrugged and Bumfights.
As always in YA, one sensitive kid figures out that all of society is evil or phonies or whatever. In this case, it's the excellent Max Burkholder, playing the son of Hawke's James Sandin. Dad is a newly wealthy peddler of security systems; son is a likable inventor geek who has built a radio-controlled Roomba-like toy with a security cam on top, a device that gives you something to guess at during the film's dull patches: How exactly will it pay off in the climax?
The family — Lena Headey is mom, and Adelaide Kane is the teen daughter whose plaid schoolgirl skirt the camera dutifully leers at — holes up behind dad's elaborate security system to wait out purge night. After some misadventures, the son sees a homeless man (Edwin Hodge) running down the street of their ritzy subdivision. The man is screaming, "Help me!" Gunshots crack in the night. The kid, not up on his Ayn Rand, disables the security system and invites the man into the house. Think Guess Who's Coming to Be a Button-Pushing Moral Quandary?
Soon, a lynch mob in animal masks and prep-school uniforms is banging on the door, demanding the homeless man be surrendered — or the family be killed. Writer-director James DeMonaco wrings this for some memorably tense scenes, especially in the second act, when the family is split over what to do while the homeless man hides in the house, uncertain whether he has been given sanctuary or is still being hunted.
Unfortunately, all of this big-idea drama — whose life is worth more? — soon gives way to an inevitable home invasion. The film opens with faked surveillance footage of purge-night violence: the destitute savaged by the solvent. That's meant to be upsetting. But after too many scenes of Hawke and Headey stalking around the house with flashlights, the climax is the close-quarters combat that's supposed to be exciting, with Hawke dispatching more faceless adversaries than is justifiable in a film committed to reminding us of the horribleness of violence.
The movie demonstrates, with some urgency, that it's a bad idea to allow heavily armed citizens to storm about their own neighborhoods, looking for people outside their demographics. But its rote action climax also suggests, maybe without even meaning to, that in the hands of the heroic, all of that firepower is a force for good. As in so many Hollywood spectacles, the message and medium are at hopeless odds: This plea for peacefulness must contain the only thing the studios are reliably adept at showing us anymore — dudes killing other dudes, kind of awesomely. Wayne LaPierre will hate the first hour but love the end.
Still, the setup is arresting, the domestic scenes are well observed and acted, and the payoffs involving that Roomba toy are excellent. Also, a late-film twist isn't a surprise, exactly, but it is delicious. Outside that dopey climax, the only thing tragic here is that it's so rare for movies ostensibly engineered for adult audiences to aspire to the thematic complexity and daring of novels ostensibly for kids.