The Purge lies to you. You’re sucked in with a genuinely interesting premise – a utopian America under the “New Founding Fathers” that has seemingly solved its social problems. However, the peace and prosperity come at a cost – “The Purge,” a 12 hour period when all crimes, including murder, are legal. One is prepared to confront fundamental questions about the nature of class, masculinity, capitalism, modernity, and violence.
Then you get a crappy home invasion movie.
The film abruptly begins on the night of The Purge, as James Sandin (Ethan Hawke, the everyman white actor) calmly drives home after a successful day at the office. The film is set about a decade from now and life seems much the same, aside from technological innovations like carb free dinners. Sandin sells security systems, which, quite understandably, are much in demand. However, Sandin is mysteriously all-but-indifferent towards the carnage that will be unleashed, casually driving home only a few hours before curfew.
Sandin’s wife Mary (Lena Headey) is a typical suburban housewife who is more concerned with making dinner than the events of the evening. She puts out an American flag and a vase of blue flowers to show her silent support for The Purge. Outside, she is greeted by a suburban neighbor, who gives her a cliched “thousand yard stare” straight out of The Stepford Wives.
The Sandin daughter, Zoey, spends her evening making out with her older boyfriend Henry, bemoaning her father’s disapproval of her relationship, and looking contemptuously at her parents.
Meanwhile, Mary and James’s son Charlie amuses himself by hiding in a secret area of his own room, filled with creepy drawings of violence, with one mentioning “The Purge.” He has created a creepy toy robot composed of a burned baby doll on wheels that can silently follow people around, which doesn’t seem to bother his mother. As we learned from American Beauty, it’s Charlie’s attraction to the perverse and bizarre that displays his true virtue – it’s the rest of us that are sick and twisted for thinking there is something odd about all this. With his long hair and brooding expression, Charlie looks like he’ll grow into your typical college lefty – the movie’s target audience.
The family sits for dinner and James brags about his corporate success and asks them all about their day. Because they are having a family dinner and he is successful, we know James is an evil man and a patriarch, and his children look at him with barely disguised contempt until the family bonds over a vulgar joke.
When the time comes, James activates the security system and the family prepares to bunker down for the evening. Charlie asks why his parents don’t participate in The Purge, even though they support it. Mary and James justify The Purge as a “release,” a cathartic event that allows Americans to cleanse themselves of anger and hate for the rest of the year. We also learn from news reports and James’s defense that America had been in a “quadruple dip” recession and plagued by high crime before The Purge was instituted by the New Founding Fathers. As one reporter puts it, “The Purge works.” Nonetheless, Mary and James will not get their hands dirty.
Zoey returns to her room after the barriers are up so she can pout and not surprisingly finds her boyfriend there, who wants to talk to her father about their relationship – on this night of all nights. You can probably guess where this is going.
Meanwhile, James marvels at his own rags to riches progression over the last few years. He pulls out his tablet computer and leers at the various boats that he may buy. James is being set up for us as a caricature of the bourgeoisie, the archetype of the rich, suburban white male.
However, Charlie, the conscience of the film, notices a black man calling for help in the street on the security cameras. Charlie disables the security system and allows the black man to take shelter in the home, to the horror of James. When James runs down to confront the man, Zoey’s boyfriend Henry takes the opportunity to try to kill him. They exchange fire, and Henry is killed. Zoey runs off, the black stranger has disappeared, and within a few minutes a group of Purgers have appeared at the front door to demand that James and his family give up The Stranger, or they will enter the house and kill everyone. The home invasion film is set.
The Stranger is a well-built black man who, unlike most real life homeless people, does not seem possessed by physical ailments or mental disorders. He is also wearing dog tags, suggesting that he is a veteran who has some combat training, and indeed has managed to kill one of the rich Purgers. How an intelligent and strong man familiar with violence is reduced to a passive, helpless victim is largely unexplained.
The temptation is to compare The Purge to The Straw Dogs, the story of a modern, weak, post-man discovering his ability to commit violence. In both films, the final confrontation is sparked by the protagonist sheltering a helpless outsider.
However, it doesn’t quite work. James, though sheltered and rich, is not helpless. His house doesn’t just have a security system but firearms, and James dutifully keeps a pistol on him during the night of The Purge, “just in case.” When he is ambushed by Henry in the midst of an already confusing situation, James is able to return fire and hit his target without hesitation.
Instead, the film despises James because he is too much of a forceful presence, complicit in the brutality of The Purge even if he doesn’t want to get his hands dirty. With all the subtlety of the Maoist International Movement, the film eventually spells out what it had only hinted at earlier, that “the rich” use the Purge as an opportunity to eliminate the poor, the weak, the elderly, and the costly.
The Purgers, dressed in smiling masks with exaggerated WASP features approach the door, and one, the “Polite Stranger” (Rhys Wakefield), courteously greets the Sandins and removes his mask. He bemoans their choice to shelter a worthless homeless man, who had the temerity to kill one of their own. He must be taught “his place” and killed. The Polite Stranger tells them that they do not want to kill “one of their own,” but if the black man is not released to them, they will break into the Sandins “elegant home” and slaughter everyone.
The Polite Stranger is quite literally dressed in a prep school uniform and looks and acts like nothing so much as a younger Patrick Bateman. Like Bateman, he is overcome with rage at even the existence of those he considers inferior and claims his right “as an American” to cleanse himself through violence. James agrees to his terms. He and Mary, armed with pistols, try to hunt down the black man. He is stymied by Charlie, who, even though his family has now been put at risk by his choices, uses his creepy robot to lead the black man to his secret room.
Zoey, indifferent to the fact that her boyfriend tried to kill her father and was just gunned down, idiotically has not joined with the rest of the family. She blunders into Charlie’s secret room to hide and is predictably captured by the noble black man, who holds a knife to her throat. James confronts him and Mary is able to sneak up from behind, but fails to shoot him. It is left to James to knock him unconscious and tie him up.
As James ties up the black man and prepares to deliver him to The Purgers, he suddenly reawakens and begins to struggle. Mary attempts to help James, but breaks down and begins crying. Zoey runs away, overcome with disgust at her father, and Charlie begs him to stop.
In an episode some White Nationalists might find familiar, James’s family swiftly abandons him when forced to choose between him and egalitarian morality. Of course, now that James has lost his allies, the noble black man heroically offers to be put aside so as to save the Sandins. James suddenly decides that he is unable to murder this moral exemplar, even indirectly, and will refuse to deliver him over to the mob.
However, this doesn’t mean he won’t kill. Instead, he confidently tells his wife that they will fight and drive the invaders out of their home. “You won’t hesitate!” he orders his wife.
Having set up the horrific home invasion in such a ham-handed way, the film manages to blunder what should be the most suspenseful part of the film. The Purgers use sophisticated equipment to break into what is essentially an urban fortress and know full well what Sandin does for a living. Nonetheless, they attack like cartoon henchmen, incompetently parading around the house, attacking one at a time, frolicking, and waving around bladed weapons instead of firearms.
While this gives Director DeMonaco an opportunity to get some creepy shots of masked killers romping through the house, the horror is undercut by the stupidity of the situation. In one especially groan inducing scene, a Purger strolls casually into a room as if he was walking his dog in the park and is predictably gunned down.
Eventually, the movie gives the audience something when the Polite Stranger manages to stab James, taunting that he should use his last moments to contemplate whether saving the life of a random homeless man was worth the lives of his family.
The rest of the family is about to be wiped out by the last of The Purgers when the Sandins’ neighbors come to the rescue and gun down the Polite Stranger. In a twist, they reveal that they are not saving the family from death but saving them for themselves as vengeance for the Sandins’ success from selling security systems. After reciting a laughably over the top kind of Purge Prayer ending with the words, “Blessed be America, a nation reborn,” they prepare to kill the Sandins. You can guess who stops them – the heroic black man.
Rather than killing them, Mary insists that they all sit at a table until morning comes, with only one more outbreak of violence when the Stepford Wife gets a broken nose for one last attempt to kill.
The Purge finally ends, but there is no outbreak of grief for the Sandins’ fallen father. Instead, his wife and children are all but indifferent, instead staring out with wordless awe at the noble black man walking into the street. (Presumably, he will travel from house to house enlightening other palefaces, and maybe solving mysteries.) Though Charlie succeeded where Zoey’s boyfriend failed by causing the death of James, the film suggests that it is James who somehow bears most of the blame.
The credits roll to news reports mostly hailing the success of the event, except for the last one being an interview with a grieving father denouncing America for “taking” his sons.
The Duty to Die
Even liberal critics pointed out the film’s absurdities. However, what many missed was the overall sense of guilt that the film assumes we share. We are asked to believe that the Bateman-esque preppy ranting about his right to kill homeless people is only an extreme caricature of James, who has built his life around a similar structure of “oppression.” “Things like this don’t happen in our neighborhood!” wails Mary at one point.
By excluding the homeless, tolerating the use of force by others, and pursuing material comforts, James reveals himself as non-egalitarian, and worthy of death. Thus, his children rightly despise him, with Charlie psychologically tormented by violence and his daughter unjustly repressed from sleeping around. His wife sees the light, when she is personally forced to take responsibility for the “violence inherent in the system.” Thus, when James is killed, no one cares – it is simply one failed attempt to atone for what his life has become.
Some reviewers seized on The Purge and compared it to the situation with George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. In the eyes of the mainstream media and our diverse fellow citizens, Trayvon Martin was simply an innocent young black child walking home with his iced tea and skittles, when a white man seized upon him and shot him for no reason. Martin’s attack on Zimmerman, Zimmerman’s attempt to defend his community from crime as a neighborhood watchman, Martin’s criminal history, and the uncomfortable fact that The Great White Defendant is actually not white was all blanked out of existence.
Underlying the debate under concealed carry and gun control is the powerful subtext that whites have a “duty to die” as an act of penance for their history of exploitation and oppression. The concept of “white privilege” means that all whites are guilty by their very nature, and in some sense have it coming. The Purge makes it explicit. Thus, James dies, but no one cares, because the real struggle his family faces is their new quest to confront their own privilege.
The suburban neighbors who try to slaughter the Sandins are a separate matter. Interestingly, there is a smattering of non-whites among them, including a black female/white male interracial couple. They justify their would be murders on the grounds of “keeping up with the Joneses” – the material prosperity of the Sandins is an insult to the rest of the neighborhood. In a materialist civilization, economic wealth is the only proof of superiority and inferiority, and the Sandins prosperity is in some ways an attack upon everyone else, even justifying the murder of children. The almost alien like suburbanites are obvious stand-ins for an evil “system,” rather than characters in their own right. It’s Mary who is supposed to be the representative for viewers.
The late Lawrence Auster argued that “liberals would rather be killed than defend themselves.” While seemingly extreme, liberals such as Ta-Nehisi Coates have explicitly argued for the moral superiority of suffering death rather than accepting the responsibility of self-defense. Progressivism is the effort to achieve a kind of permanent childhood, a flight from citizenship and responsibility into a permanent consumer playground.
The Purge makes it explicit. To her credit, Mary fights against the Purgers who come into her home. However, once the immediate threat of violence has been removed, she flees from taking responsibility for violence. The final scene with Mary sitting with her murderous neighbors is reminiscent of the pathetic spectacle of Gotham’s citizens cowering rather than blowing up a boat of criminals to save their own lives in The Dark Knight. As Trevor Lynch describes it,
They would rather die than take the lives of others, and it is clearly not because they have conquered their fear of death, but simply from a lack of sheer animal vitality, of will to power. Their morality has made them sick. They don’t think they have the right to live at the expense of others. Or, worse still, they all live at the expense of others. This whole System is about eating one another. But none of them will own up to that fact in front of others.
Mary orders her murderous neighbors to leave “my house” when morning comes. She’s clearly not going to give up the property her husband gave her. She also seems to have a different moral standard towards her respectable neighbors than the invaders from outside – if anything, Mary seems outraged by the breach in decorum. She can’t have any illusions about what her community feels about her. However, she would rather live in a large house among people who hate her for it (and presumably will come after her family next year) than take responsibility for inflicting death. Even threatening the lives of her children is not sufficient justification for Mary to take life – Cercei Lannister she is not.
Thus, at the end of the film, we are all guilty. To seek material success, to pursue social hierarchy, and to use or even benefit from the use of personal or institutional violence is to confess oneself as evil. Of course, since that is everyone who has ever lived, the message of the The Purge is that man is irredeemably corrupt, unable to achieve the spirit of perfect self-sacrifice and egalitarianism that our morality demands.
I Support the Purge
The discussion of a film like this is more fun than the film itself, so it’s worth speculating how a “Purge” would actually play out in the real world.
In reality, any real “Purge” would not be dominated by frat boys having a lark but highly trained killers that the rich and powerful would simply hire to protect them. While there would be many freelancers, after a few years a caste system would quickly emerge as the untrained and reckless are weeded out and military veterans and combat experts establish dominance. Furthermore, rather than casually driving home an hour or two before chaos is unleashed, we could expect middle class Americans to be preparing for weeks for a combat situation, setting up fields of fire, killing zones, and the all the rest. In a nation dominated where even those who have never shot a gun in their life wile away the hours by playing Call of Duty, tactics, weapons, and training would grow quickly in sophistication.
Alliances would form as friends and tribes would join forces to protect themselves on the night of The Purge. Rather than men going out “hunting” for a lark, we would quickly see private armies roaming the cities in pursuit of specific objectives. The film takes care to note that government officials “above level 10” are immune to violence on the night of The Purge and weapons are limited (you can’t just drive around a tank), but the smarter purgers would use the opportunity to acquire wealth and property through violence, theft, or even hacking, rather than settling personal scores.
It would also change social mores. Harold Covington, in justifying the reactivation of the Code Duello in his fictional Northwest American Republic, quips, “In America, there was no penalty for being an asshole. There needs to be.” If an armed society is a polite society, a Purge society would be a positively friendly one, as citizens would be cautious about indulging in road rage, frivolous lawsuits, libelous internet postings, or malevolent sexual activities against spouses or partners. Few would flaunt infidelity if it meant getting a bullet through the head if you come home smelling like another woman’s perfume. Rather than mutually trampling each other, we would have to be cautious, if only out of fear.
The Purge obviously does not support The Purge. The film tells us that we are all guilty, and, of course, not equal enough. As with most movies of this sort, the real message is the exact opposite of what is intended.
Our rich and privileged elite look more like residents from the Capitol from The Hunger Games rather than jealous warrior aristocrats. They are Eloi protected from the consequences of the society they have created by a Leviathan of money, social control, and government regulation unparalleled in history. The idea that they would even be capable of violence, let alone championing it, turns the movie into a farce. While the rich would simply bribe others to protect them on the night of The Purge, what’s to stop their hired guns from turning on the more objectionable specimens on the one night of anarchy? The neighbors’ attack on the Sandins is in some sense understandable (if exaggerated). If society allows profiteering and the law is on the side of the exploiters, violence can be used to enforce a more primitive sense of justice.
Citizens under a nominal authoritarianism are in some ways more free than the degraded denizens of a democracy. At least under autocracy, you know who to shoot to change things. In our society, a man is fettered by thousands of invisible chains that bind his every activity, and the honest expression of his power results in his swift annihilation by the System. With at least the ability to strike back, if only in a doomed fight against overwhelming odds, a man could redeem himself from the other 364 days of servitude a year. Accepting the premise that The Purge “works” in the film, it is not because it is a catharsis, but because the elemental struggle of life and death allows a person to reclaim his sense of self rather than laboring away under an all-pervasive but invisible dictatorship.
The film asks us to despise this. It is better to be victim than victimizer, to die than to live, to internalize guilt and self-hatred rather than immorally exercise one’s own Will to Power. The truth is the opposite. Though exaggerated, inaccurate, and wildly stupid, a Purge allows the reclamation of honor in the Hegelian sense – the ability to risk death and pain in order to gain a more elevated self-consciousness. To rebel against a life of merely pursuing desire is to earn the right to be called a human being, rather than simply a clever animal.
Of course, there’s nothing stopping us from doing that right now.
The Purge isn’t worth seeing in theaters. It’s characterization is idiotic, its messaging is crude, it’s sense of suspense is nonexistent. But all that said . . . I support The Purge.