Ulaa Salim's film is a disturbing and shocking look at right-wing extremism— a necessary tale in 2019.
The Purge. 2013. Directed & Written by James DeMonaco.
Starring Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Max Burkholder, Adelaide Kane, Edwin Hodge, Rhys Wakefield, Tony Oller, Arija Bareikis, Tom Yi, Chris Mulkey, and Tisha French. Blumhouse Productions. Rated 14A. 85 minutes. Horror/Thriller.
Now to start – I have an aunt who is a full-fledged American, I have friends who are American – so when I say things about America, please don’t assume that I’m talking about EVERY SINGLE AMERICAN. I’m not, at all. Many of you who read this are American, and I bet you’re awesome people.
However, American society as a whole has an obsession with violence. Not just violence, gun violence in particular. It’s an epidemic. Anyone who denies that is in denial, in my opinion. It’s an obvious observation; nothing revolutionary about what I’m saying here. Every single day there’s a new story about police killing unarmed black men, every week or two a mass shooting in a public place. Violence is on the news almost endlessly, it seems.
So when people bash on The Purge for not being realistic, sure – it isn’t meant to be a documentary. This is also not science fiction, as the IMDB categorization would have you believe. This is speculative crime fiction in my mind. There are elements of a thriller, obviously, as we’re treated to a snapshot of what American life might be like on nights when a Purge would happen. Also, a few good moments you can say are straight up horror.
It isn’t a perfect movie, but I think that it’s pretty damn good. There’s solid acting in the lead roles, as well as several of the supporting ones. Director & writer James DeMonaco doesn’t rely on any ridiculous CGI to get the job done. What he does rely on is the acting, but also his own script affords opportunities which draw on the fears of everyone watching: what if The Purge was a real event? Yeah, I know in the real world the likelihood of this actually happening is so slim there’s no point in discussing it as a real event (perhaps there is in a more educational perspective than my shitty little blog). However, there doesn’t have to be a perfectly plausible world where this would happen. It’s speculative fiction, it represents a metaphorical space where this could happen because of the far right-wing conservative views that some groups/parties hold in America. I could see some politicians backing a ridiculous policy like The Purge, trying to pass it as an alternative to reducing crime/et cetera; it would never pass, clearly, but is it so hard to believe some nutjob would actually suggest something wild like this? I don’t think so. That alone is enough to justify The Purge as a fun little horror flick.
Regardless, it’s about totalitarianism, the concept of a police state – in every single American state – and how extreme right-wing politics have the ability to rise in the wake of economic collapse.
The American government becomes a totalitarian regime in the early 2010s. After the economy collapses, a police state emerges to combat the effects felt across the nation. Every year, on March 21st an event named “The Purge” occurs where all crime is legal, as well as the fact all emergency services are suspended for 12 hours until 7am on the 22nd. Very few restrictions are involved, mostly pertaining to government officials and Class 4 weapons. Apparently, The Purge is responsible for a drop in both crime and unemployment, bringing the American economy back to a level of unparalleled growth.
In 2022, as The Purge begins, James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) heads home after having an excellent day – he sells security systems designed specifically to lock down houses for The Purge (ah ha – commentary!). He and his wife Mary (Lena Headey), plus their two children Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and Charlie (Max Burkholder) are getting prepared to lockdown for the evening. However, things don’t go as planned this year for James and his family. First of all, Zoey’s boyfriend Henry (Tony Oller) has snuck himself in to stay overnight; he’s older, which pisses her father off. Unfortunately for Zoey, Henry unknowingly has plans to confront dear ole dad. Even worse, though, is the fact that young Charlie lets in a man off the street (Edwin Hodge) who claims he’s being tracked, saying they’re trying to kill him. With the man inside, James is unprepared for what will come next.
Soon, a group of people come knocking. They’re out for The Purge – to “release the beast” as it’s frequently called – and are lead by a man who unmasks himself (Rhys Wakefield). He rings the doorbell, politely explaining himself, and tells James + family that they’re looking for the man who was let inside. Ultimatums are given, James tries to stand his ground, but eventually those “fine, young, very educated guys & gals” will get in, one way or another. Even if they’ve got to huff and puff and blooooow the house down.
“We don’t want to kill our own,” he says. “Please just let us Purge!”
There are a lot of things going on in this movie that I think people ignore. Sure, maybe the logistics of everything are not perfect, but whatever. There are a lot of messages in here about the social issues, violence included, which plague America on a daily basis.
Right now, on a day when Officer Dipshit or whatever that piece of garbage’s name is who shot Sam DuBose, is it so hard to look at The Purge and admit it says things which are downright true about America overall?
The line above screams the problems of race which America faces on a day to day norm. Black men are killed by the dozens every year, it seems, worse and worse as the years go by. Here we’ve got a bunch of lily-white American “guys & gals” out having their Purge and who do they choose? That’s right, a black man. Because he’s not one of their own. So they hunt him down and any sympathizers in their way? Release the beast on them, too.
Just like nowadays, people who support the victims are treated like the Sandin family. Clearly not literally, but you catch my drift.
What I love, though, is that James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) is not an innocent in all this debacle. While his wife and children are indeed innocent bystanders, essentially, James is guilty as anyone. He may as well be out Purging with the rest of those people; even explaining to his son what the night ‘means’ he says that if they felt the need to, he and his wife would Purge because the annual night “saved this country“. So while we feel terror for James, and certainly his family, he’s still culpable partly in the overall societal go-along with The Purge as an event.
Sandin makes money selling systems that are built solely because of The Purge. Now, I don’t mean to say that’s how it started off. I’m sure James probably worked for a security company of some sort and once The Purge was enacted as an official event they probably just up and capitalized on the opportunity to make money. Regardless of the process (I just know there are people who nitpick so let’s get to the fucking nitty gritty then), James and the company he works for are exploiting this, so they’re only going along with the entire totalitarian government which has a deathgrip on American society here in DeMonaco’s film.
I just find that whole angle interesting because there are elements to that part of James – guilt, fear for his family and what he has been a party to as a profiteer of totalitarian policy – which I felt Ethan Hawke really brought out in the character. He’s one solid actor. I love that he’s done some horror/horror-ish stuff as of late, including the not amazing but a lot of creepy fun – Sinister. Brings a bit of credibility to genre pictures when you have good actors; they don’t have to be big time names, but that certainly does not hurt. Here it works with both Hawke, as well as Lena Headey. She gets a break from being a hard ass bitch – Cersei motherfuckin’ Lannister on Game of Thrones – to play a woman who is thrust into a world she never ever wanted, hoping her family can make it through the night. She and Hawke play well together as husband and wife, especially in some incredibly tense moments.
There’s a cold calculation to the character Rhys Wakefield plays, the unmasked Purge vigilante at James Sandin’s door. The way he shoots one of his fellow Purgers who screams “just give us the homeless pig, you fuck!” into the house, I found it perfect. It’s not just sly acting on Wakefield’s part, who does well with his performance. The character shows us how those sort operate – the type who have problems with the homeless, the black, the people of any other colour, yet they act civilized, as if politeness on the level of manners is in some sense a way to validate all their other disgusting behaviour (racism/sexism/you name it). So I think this moment, when he shoots the masked Purger, is a real great bit that works on a couple levels: shock, as well as a brief insight into the polite Purger.
We get some morality play as well with the conflicted character of James Sandin. Eventually, he has to make a choice, and in the end: is it worse to kill some straight out, or to hand them over to people knowing they will be killed? Isn’t it the same?
Part of that is a total moral/philosophical debate that could really rage on for a while, depending on who’d be doing the debating. Anyways, I think it adds a fun level to the action in the last half hour of The Purge.
Not only that, there’s a great twist in the finale.
AHHHHHH – LADIES & GENTLEMEN, AHHHHHHH – THIS IS YOUR CAPTAIN SPEAKING. PLEASE BUCKLE UP: WE WILL BE EXPERIENCING SOME SPOILERS COMING UP FOR A MOMENT OR TWO.
I thought it only added to the commentary of the film that already existed to have the neighbours, who we’d previously seen only briefly at the start of the film, be the ones who want to have the thrill of killing the Sandin family. It’s just bloody and poetic justice, really. In a disturbing sense. I’m glad that things played out in the very end how they did, but still – the neighbours were a good touch.
Because it speaks so well to the idea that we don’t know the people around us, not truly. We never can, no matter how long we spend around them. Sometimes the same goes for people you even live with, but here it does well to show how even the “normal” people around the neighbourhood would indulge in their Purge fantasies, willingly
One of my favourite moments: the masked girl skipping on down the hall, machetes in town swinging at her sides. It is super creepy, I dig it so hard. Only for a moment, long enough to set in. Perfectly executed shot that I thought worked wonders.
In reality, this movie is a 4 out of 5 star horror-thriller, with some speculative social fiction mixed into the pot.
Balls to the folks who say “This would never happen” – okay, well let’s throw out Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and countless other horror films that are wonderful. Not saying this is on the level of those, which I do consider classics and I don’t care what kind of bullshit people get on with like that it’s typical to like those movies; whatever the fuck ever, man. They’re great stuff and helped the genesis of what horror is now today.
So I had a lot of fun watching The Purge. I also enjoyed the sequel, despite what others seem to think about it on the whole. For me, it’s an interesting concept with both horror and thriller elements. Like I said, it also has some social discussion going on. If people want to ignore that, fine, but it’s there. You can’t shake that fact. I tend to believe there are some good statements here, too. Not just all nonsense and scriptwriting creation – there are things to which we ought to pay attention. But if you want, think it’s trash and that horror movies can never say anything worthwhile.
I’ll take what I can from it, and enjoy a good viewing every now and then – it’s a fun modern horror movie with lots of tense thrills.