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Movie Review

When bad things happen to good people once every year

James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) prepares to face an intruder on a night of “The Purge.”

universal pictures

James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) prepares to face an intruder on a night of “The Purge.”

Somewhere between Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and the “Family Guy” episode in which Peter Griffin joins the Tea Party lies “The Purge.” Unfortunately, it’s as funny as the former and as thoughtful as the latter.

The scenario probably sounded great when writer-director James DeMonaco pitched it. Sometime in the future — say, 2022, March 21 at 5:58 p.m., to be precise — unemployment in the country is at 1 percent and crime barely registers. The reason? Perhaps inspired by “The Hunger Games,” a cabal called The New Founding Fathers has taken over the country and instituted an annual Purge, 12 hours of anarchy during which anything goes: murder, rape, mayhem, all can be enjoyed with impunity. That way everyone gets it out of their system. We have something similar to this already — watching mindlessly violent films like “The Purge,” except without the lecturing.

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The problem with high concepts like this is cooking up a story and characters to go along with it. To that end, Ethan Hawke plays James Sandin, a salesman who’s been making a killing selling security systems to fellow gated-community dwellers so they can ride out the Walpurgisnacht unscathed. His wife, Mary (Lena Headey), is dutiful, but the kids are a handful: Teenage Zoey (Adelaide Kane) is boy-crazy, and Charlie (Mark Burkholder) . . . I don’t know what his deal is. He builds a robot out of a maimed baby doll, like the creepy kid Sid in “Toy Story,” yet he has the bleeding heart of a limousine liberal. As it turns out, DeMonaco doesn’t know what to make of him, either. Finally, to add an atmosphere of repression and also to make the stilted dialogue sound less terrible, everyone has slick black hair and pale faces, they wear clothes that would seem conservative on “Mad Men,” and all the decor is in shades of gray and black and brown.

So, Purge time commences, the armored shutters clang shut, and DeMonaco has run out of ideas. Part of his problem is that he has already blurted them all out in TV and radio spots in which pundits explain everything ad nauseam, including the potentially interesting notion that the Purge is a form of class warfare. Maybe it would be more convincing if the ideas were integrated with the story and characters, like in “A Clockwork Orange” or “Straw Dogs.”

Instead, after a few red herrings, it all devolves into a siege, as the Sandins ambivalently give refuge to a homeless guy who’s been targeted by a lynch mob of raving yuppies. The latter storm the Sandin’s mansion to retrieve their victim, and they are like a country club version of the Manson Family, or maybe New Age zombies, except these characters aren’t undead, just underwritten. Like the rest of the movie, it’s so half-baked it doesn’t even leave a sour taste.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this review misspelled the last name of “Family Guy” character Peter Griffin.

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