The Purge review: good, decent, patriotic violence
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 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 Tale — The 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?