The premise behind The Purge is almost childishly simplistic. In fact, after seeing the trailer I seriously expected to hate it. But writer/director James DeMonaco turns out to be a lot smarter than he might at first appear, and he delivers a surprising change-up to an audience that goes in expecting a brutal, disgusting, home-defense thriller. To be sure, the film is brutal and disgusting, but in a completely unexpected way.
It’s 2022, and a political group referred to as the “New Founding Fathers” has come to power and instituted The Purge. Humanity, they say, is inherently violent and all sorts of social ills come from suppressing these natural tendencies. The Purge acts as a release valve: for one night a year, for twelve hours, all laws and emergency services are suspended. People can run wild and recklessly free to their hearts’ content.
And it seems to be working. Crime and unemployment are down and the economy is booming. Not surprisingly, home security systems are doing particularly well, and James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) is one of the best at selling them. He and his family — wife Mary (Lena Headey), daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane), and son Charlie (Max Burkholder) — live in the biggest of a development full of McMansions, all outfitted with the top of his company’s line.
But during this year’s Purge something, naturally, goes wrong. Charlie sees a wounded man on the run (Edwin Hodge) and lets him inside. The man is soon followed by a gang of hunters led by a young, well-dressed man (Rhys Wakefield), who delivers an ultimatum: either the Sandins return their quarry, or they will breach the defenses and Purge themselves on the whole family as well. And thus we have the setup of an ultraviolent home-defense thriller, along the lines of Straw Dogs.
At this point you should be asking yourself why anyone would ever believe a system like The Purge would work. Yes, at a glance it makes a certain superficial sense, but the mildest probe breaks through that thin veneer into a core of crazypants. If these desires are so universal that we must subject everyone to the downside, why do so many people wall themselves away rather than go hunting? Why would a single night be enough, especially for vendettas that are fierce enough to smolder until the next year’s Purge? Not every murderous attempt can succeed; don’t failures just breed more resentment for the whole next year? Most importantly, why would the Purge bring down unemployment in the first place?
To DeMonaco’s credit, there is an answer of sorts to all of these questions. Set aside all the para-evangelical rhetoric about the natural order and purging the human soul of its violent tendencies and consider how the policy would actually work: the rich can afford the best security to assure their own safety, while the poor are left to bear the brunt of the damage. The Purge actually works — to the extent that it does — as a mechanism for the near-systematic execution of the economic underclass. And the well-off backers of this movement have clothed themselves in patriotism as a palatable cover for their true sentiments, expressed in language not far removed from Ayn Rand’s “takers” and “makers”.
In The Purge, DeMonaco has literalized class warfare as a bloody squabble between the Haves and the Have-Nots — not to mention the Haves and the Have-Mores — that the Powers That Be use to keep everyone fighting among themselves. And why not? they’ve got sociologists from fancy universities saying that this struggle is just the natural order of things, and the natural order is not to be questioned.
Make no mistake: this film is nothing less than a full-throated indictment of Tea Party policies and politics. It calls out the mentality of justification that anything which drives certain specified indicators in the right direction is by definition good. It calls out the language of self-serving faiths, both theological and nationalistic. It calls out the pseudo-intellectual cover used to back up an underlying cutthroat — literally — agenda. And it calls out the masses’ contentment with the status quo in their own neighborhood, which serves to separate and weaken them.
The real story of The Purge is that of a man coming face to face with his own privilege: a healthy, well-dressed, white man in his palatial house waves a gun in the face of a bruised, broken, homeless, black man and asks, “what did I ever do to you?” when he not only lives in but thrives off of a system that is structured specifically to make his life easier at the other guy’s expense, and until this point he never even realized that this is what was going on. We are forced to consider how frequently these exact words are used by the comfortable to justify their complacency in the face of the afflicted. To any decent human being, this should land a sickening blow, harder than any rifle butt to the face.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: another close one, but again I give shaky cases a fail.