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The Purge review: good, decent, patriotic violence

The Purge green light Ethan Hawke

Asks us to look anew — and askance — at conventions of cinematic horror while also engaging in startling satire of America’s culture of violence.
I’m “biast” (pro): thought the trailer showed potential; love Hawke and Headey

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Maybe it’s implausible. Ten years from now, America is a veritable paradise: unemployment is down to 1 percent, GDP is soaring, crime is virtually nonexistent. And it’s all thanks to the Purge, an annual 12-hour free-for-all during which all crime, including murder, is legal.

That’s the premise of The Purge, and it doesn’t seem to quite hold up against human nature. Would a few hours every year be enough to satisfy the urges of the most violent among us and keep them in check for an entire year? Wouldn’t crimes of passion still be a problem? How could this possibly work in the real world?

Here’s the thing: it’s entirely possible that it doesn’t actually work even in the world of The Purge. For we experience everything here — Purge Night 2022 — through the eyes and ears of the charming all-American Sandin family, who live apparently very sheltered lives in an upscale gated suburban neighborhood. The news flows into their tastefully decorated McMansion via their widescreen TVs, broadcasting material that appears to be almost wholly under the purview of a leadership called the “New Founding Fathers,” espousing a philosophy that could be called pious only in an Old Testament sort of way. Paradise America is under some form of fundamentalist Christian dictatorship, and if we can’t believe what we see on TV now, how likely is it that TV is telling the truth in this twisted 2022 USA?

Here’s another thing: plausible or not, with this conceit writer-director James DeMonaco (who wrote Assault on Precinct 13 and The Negotiator) has found a prism through which to do something extraordinary with the genre. It’s the sort of thing horror movies should do but rarely manage: instead of indulging our baser natures, The Purge makes us question the human propensity for violence; instead of reveling in blood and gore, The Purge forces us to explore our relationship with violence, both as individuals and as a society.

It also makes us look anew — and askance — at conventions of cinematic horror. When I first heard about the film’s premise, I feared that it would serve no greater purpose than isolating the family under siege… for as part of the Purge, all emergency services are suspended, so there’s no calling the cops, and there’s no possible cavalry coming to their rescue. But unlike in other home-invasion flicks, which count on our overwhelming sympathy for the victims because they simply don’t deserve this and because what they are enduring is Just So Wrong, that cannot be a factor here, or at least not in the same way. Not only is what happens to the nice, handsome, wealthy Sandins not random, it is sanctioned. The demented morality of the world on the screen taunts us. All horror movies assure us, on a deep unspoken level, that it’s “okay” to enjoy the murder and mayhem they present us with, so why is it distinctly uncomfortable when a film explicitly states: “This is allowed. This is permitted. This is, even, good and decent and patriotic.”? Every act of violence we witness here — as the genre goes, it’s not overly bloody or graphic, actually — has to be reconsidered in light of its context. I venture to guess that even serious horror fans will not have found themselves previously pondering so confoundingly just how they should be reacting to what they see. We don’t have to accept the morality of this world — and I’d worry about anyone who did — to accept that the characters are operating in a different context than we are in our world, which is not the case for any other horror film that I’m aware of (though I concede that I am no expert in the genre).

The Purge is hardly a deeply thinky film, but there is some discussion among the Sandins about the difference between legality and morality, particularly between mom Mary (Lena Headey: Game of Thrones, Dredd) and preteen son Charlie (Max Burkholder: Astro Boy, Fly Me to the Moon), whose typical pubescent poutiness in this world extends to not liking the idea of being able to kill people with the blessing — in this case literally — of the powers that be. (Teen daughter Zoey [Adelaide Kane] just pouts because the Purge is so boring, a chilling hint that given a few more years, Charlie might feel the same.) It’s Charlie’s rebelliousness that kickstarts the plot, when he opens the Sandin home Purge Night lockdown to let in a stranger (Edwin Hodge: Take Me Home Tonight, The Alamo) who is being hunted through the streets because he’s poor and homeless — and so considered particularly just prey — which in turn makes the Sandins a Purge target that they would not otherwise have been. For the man’s hunters demand the family turn him over, lest they deny the hunters their Purge Night rights.

And this is when The Purge starts to get really interesting, by adding in layers of startling satire of America’s culture of violence. Purge Night is an extreme extrapolation of peculiarly America notions about “security” and “self-defense” — the Purge is “a lawful outlet for American rage,” a TV announcer tells us, and it is “our duty as Americans” to participate, someone else says, or at least to support it (as the Sandins do). Dad James (Ethan Hawke: Total Recall, Sinister) has earned the family fortune, in fact, by selling home-security lockdown systems like the one that protects — supposedly — their own home. When James squawks that “things like this are not supposed to happen in our neighborhood,” it’s not just the bleat of a terrified victim clueless enough to believe that money and a nice house protects him from bad things. It’s part of the film’s direct confrontation with American violence and anger, privilege and delusion.

I don’t want to risk overselling the movie by comparing it to better films, but the tweaking of genre conventions reminded me of The Cabin in the Woods, and in fact a viewing of another upcoming home-invasion film after I saw this confirmed that it’s gonna be tough to top The Purge in the subgenre — it has raised the bar, high. And it reminds me, too, of The Handmaid’s TaleThe Purge is to American attitudes about violence and public safety what that other film was to the nation’s attitudes about women’s sexuality. My main quibble with The Purge is that it leaves so much unanswered about its future society, and opens so many questions. There’s so much more to explore here. Purge 2?

US/Canada release date: Jun 07 2013 | UK release date: May 31 2013

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated CDH (contains many cold dead hands)
MPAA: rated R for strong disturbing violence and some language
BBFC: rated 15 (contains strong language and bloody violence)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes
  • RogerBW

    That’s rare these days – a horror film that realises that real horror is in the mind, not in the blood-spattered post-hole digger. The trailer certainly made it look like pasted-on background to a generic “family in house, maniacs try to get in” muncher…

    …though it sounds as though there’s still plenty of that. The film I’d like to see would be the one that looked into the implications, rather than just throwing more and more masked psychopaths at the Good Guys.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    There’s more of the implications than I was expecting, but there could have been a lot more.

  • http://www.tinyurl.com/jefbook Jef With One F

    I thought this looked really stupid, but now I kind of want to watch it

  • PJK

    Completely off topic, but still: Why is Ethan Hawk linked to Total Recall? I can’t recall seeing him in that movie at all. Did I blink and miss him?

    Hmm, checked IMDB and he seems to be in there: I must have spaced out when he was on the screen.

  • Jurgan

    This sounds good. Your review made me think of The Hunger Games, actually- brief outlets of legally sanctioned violence in what appears (to some) to be a perfect society. Not exactly the same, but the idea of reflecting on our own ideas of violence in our own society seemed similar.

  • Beowulf

    Really, MA?

    This sounds like all those violent, sexy, bible-thumpers of the fifties–slave girls, gladiators, Christians and lions–that had their cake and got to eat it, too. As long as they somehow shoe-horned in a message about religion and the baby Jesus, they got away with murder–literally.

  • http://www.dpsinfo.com LaurieMann

    Sorry, based on the commercial it looks like a Libertarian/gun-nut wet dream. There’s no way I’d pay to go see this (even though I like Hawke and Headey).

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    It really isn’t. It’s a critique of that wet dream.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    That is not what this movie is. I promise.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    He has a small but pivotal — in a referentially geek sense — role.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Twenty years ago, I might have been intrigued but the worldbuilding here is not exactly all that convincing even by modern-day Hollywood standards.

    I suspect that the original inspiration was not so much sociological in nature but rather a secular equivalent of such pre-Lenten festivals such as Louisiana’s Mardi Gras and Brazil’s Carnival–festivals which allegedly give local Catholics one last chance to blow off steam before the restrictions of the Lenten season.

    Of course, as others have noted, what might work on a religious basis doesn’t apply that much to more secular crimes for reasons that anyone who has ever spent an hour people-watching can readily guess.

    But I suppose the makers of Straw Dogs in Suburbia had to start somewhere with their premise. And they’re not exactly aiming this at the Mensa crowd, no matter what the reviews might tell you.

  • RogerBW

    Well, it seems to have won the weekend in spite of being critically slated in most places (40% on RT) — though with the only other new release being The Internship, which is being even more slated (33%) and the reviews I’ve seen are much more negative, that’s not entirely surprising. The only other option for a horror fan that I can see was the Evil Dead remake, and I imagine they’ve seen that by now.

  • singlestick

    RE: And they’re not exactly aiming this at the Mensa crowd, no matter what the reviews might tell you.

    Of course, the Mensa crowd has notoriously bad taste, so who cares what they think?

    I’m intrigued by this film now, on the basis of MaryAnn’s review, and the absurd reaction of people like the Daily Kos contributor, who condemned the film as “Every Right-Winger’s Wet Dream,” even though he admits that he has not even seen the movie.

    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2013/05/17/1209871/-The-Purge-Every-Right-Winger-s-Wet-Dream#

    Other critics have noted that this movie may remind some of Shirley Jackson’s magnificent short story, “The Lottery,” which also imagines a society ritualizing murder in a vain attempt to make it more palatable.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    I was a member of Mensa once. Just FYI.

  • Eric

    I liked the movie, but I wonder why the box office was so different in the UK, where it bombed, from the US, where it made 10 times it’s production costs in the first three days. Did the UK not use the same marketing campaign?

  • Allen W

    Return of “The Return of the Archons”!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Return_of_the_Archons
    Are you of the body?

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    Perhaps the difference is that the UK has a very different attitude toward guns and “personal security” than the US does.

  • RogerBW

    To extent that a bit: we certainly don’t have, as part of our national subconscious, the idea of holing up and defending yourself when THEY come for you. I don’t know to what extent this meme resonates with Americans, and I assume it varies a lot across the country.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Given the number of British novels, movies and even TV shows ranging from War of the Worlds to The World’s End that are obsessed with the idea of invasion and conquest by “outsiders,” I’m surprised.

  • Tonio Kruger

    I would have taken this movie more seriously if so much of it wasn’t a typical piece of “look what happens when the other guys take over” piece of propaganda. The premise is not that believable, the characters are not that believable, the few scary images seem borrowed from other movies and even the climax seems more ridiculous than shocking. SPOILER Indeed, the mother’s final act of violence seemed to provoke more laughter than any other type of reaction.

    I was more shocked by last year’s horror anthology V/H/S which, despite an opening that seemed derivative of Jackass* and a premise based on found footage,** managed to scare the bejeebers out of an old horror film veteran like myself.

    However, your mileage may vary.

    * For what it’s worth, I’m not fond of Jackass.

    **For what it’s worth, I’m not really fond of found footage horror films.

  • RogerBW

    The difference is that to a first approximation Americans expect to fight off the invaders; the British expect to be conquered, but to out-last them.

  • Jester

    The “gun nuts” you are unsuccessfully attempting to denigrate are normal, average Americans. It’s the simpletons with an unhealthy and ridiculous fear of guns that are the exception. And since when is the notion of self defense something to be looked at as unusual? Strange views you have.

  • Danielm80

    A fear of guns isn’t unhealthy or ridiculous. A gun can kill or injure you. That’s what a gun is designed to do.

    Here are some figures from Joe Nocera’s Gun Report about a month ago:

    According to the Gun Violence Archive, 7,986 people have been injured by gun violence in America and 4,534 have been killed since Jan. 1, 2014. That number includes 16 police officers killed, 507 children injured or killed and 380 instances of defensive gun use.

    That report was written in early June. Since then, the numbers have gone up. As of July 9, there were 22,547 incidents of gun violence in 2014:

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=328812140605017&set=a.287712451381653.1073741828.281857108633854&type=1&theater

    You can see the daily reports on these sites:

    https://www.facebook.com/GunViolenceArchive

    http://nocera.blogs.nytimes.com/category/gun-report/

    Gun rights advocates would argue that they’re preventing an even greater number of injuries and deaths. Gun control advocates–and I am one–would say that even legal, regulated gun ownership has led to far too many tragedies, including the deaths of hundreds of children.

    Whichever side you take, responsible gun ownership means an awareness that a gun is a dangerous weapon that should be used only with enormous caution. That means that guns should be feared. Fear is, in fact, the most rational response to a gun, no matter which side of the barrel you’re on.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    Sorry, it’s the assholes opening-carrying military-grade weapons in Target who are the simpletons. They are not “normal” or “average,” and you better believe I’m afraid of them. Anyone with half a brain should be.