The premise for The Purge is audacious, very American, and wounding. Along the way, the picture gives signs of faltering: Will it settle for being one more episode in the saga of threatened family movies? Then it rallies, reapplies its bite, and rates as one of the most political mainstream American movies since… well, we’ll come back to that. Now, if that word “political” seems off-putting, don’t worry movie-goers. The Purge has the wicked wit to include all the blood and gunplay you could wish for. Moreover, the closer it gets to being a sleeper hit, the more insidious its politics become. Sure it’s a bloodbath, but the bath is as scathing as acid.
The year is 2022 (only nine years away) and the place is any affluent, suburban situation where the best houses are palaces of luxury and anonymity. The jewel of the neighborhood belongs to the Sandins, and it is the best because James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) is an expert in the domestic security business. He can give you a set-up guaranteed against robbery, or more extensive kinds of invasion. James and his wife Mary (Lena Headey) are on friendly enough terms with their community, but you do feel an undertone of envy in the neighbors—for all of them have bought the Sandin system, and they realize that that’s why the Sandin house is bigger than theirs. In addition, James has Ethan Hawke’s worried, if not haggard, look.
Is that much security really necessary in what seems a utopian America? Unemployment has fallen to 1 percent and taken crime down with it. But so much well-being leaves citizens edgy. They have no opportunity to exercise their natural hostility, their aggro, or their violence. So one night a year, 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., the state has ordained “the Purge,” somewhere between sport and spiritual renewal. In those twelve hours all crime, including murder, is permitted. There will be no police, no emergency services, no God; there will be no state. That’s why respectable households like to activate the Sandin steel shutter system just before 7 p.m. and turn on the video surveillance that watches every approach.
The conceit of the purge is futuristic, yet most Americans will recognize its sardonic humor and relevance. After all, we do allow the purging of shoot-to-kill instincts in video games, bloodthirsty movies, pornography, destructive sporting events, target practice, and that ultimate arena in which a man (or a woman) can be all that they can be, the military. Beyond that, when some of us feel chronic angry energies, toward ourselves or others, we are given medication, not quite a purging but a tranquilizer. We have it all under control, we assure ourselves, though some other countries are more doubtful. So the Purge is the occasion for a drastic contest, but not so far beyond reality TV shows that we can’t feel the connection. The funniest things in The Purge are the shit-eating newscasts that honor those lost on the big night as “sacrifices” to American progress.
You may guess what follows: One of the two Sandin children hears and sees an African American man (Edwin Hodge) on the street crying out for shelter. So he lifts the shutters and lets the man in. Some advance descriptions of The Purge said this kindness exposed the family and their house to underworld gang warfare. That is not this story. Instead, a band of white America-firsters come after the black man. Their leader is a nonchalant young fop (Rhys Wakefield) with lank blond hair, a tartan tie, and a crested blazer. He and his followers are hunting out “filth.” In any real world we would recognize them as fascists.
Sure it’s a bloodbath, but the bath is as scathing as acid.
I won’t say what happens, but just as the picture seems to be diverting itself into a melodrama about a threatened family—like the two versions of The Desperate Hours, Panic Room, and even Straw Dogs—it returns to the original conceit with savagery. This is not a comforting story, yet in all likelihood it will do very well. The conflict between box-office flourish and ideological undermining will be worth observing in theaters across the land.
The Purge is written and directed by James DeMonaco, and it’s only the second film he has directed: The first was Little New York (2009), which also starred Ethan Hawke. But DeMonaco wrote The Negotiator and Assault on Precinct 13 (another Hawke project, where the threatened stronghold was a police station). He has also helped produce two television series, The Kill Point and Crash, which were full of social disgust. The Purge is blunt and unrefined. It’s unashamed of its own violence, a little like the pictures Samuel Fuller made in the 1950s and early ’60s, and it has Fuller’s subversive contempt for conventional morality. The characters are brittle cartoon figures; they are not themselves intrigued by the possibilities of a purge.1
The Sandins are superficial, but that leaves their twists and turns more morally naked. Maybe the violence could have been done less in wound-adoring close-ups and more in withdrawn long shots that let us feel the ritual and macabre humor. This is a parable that might have attracted Luis Buñuel or Michael Haneke. (Indeed, the fascists are reminiscent of the young men who come to terrorize another family in Haneke’s two versions of Funny Games.) The better its box office, the more controversial this film will become, and that’s much to the good.
In 1976 when Network opened, some people thought its analysis of TV society was exaggerated or facetious. Time has only proved how prescient it was, and I can imagine the possibilities in “the purge” inspiring Network’s frenzied programming executive Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) to drum up some reality TV variation. Network had elements of tragedy and justified alarm, but it was as comic as Paddy Chayefsky’s other film of that period, The Hospital (as in, no place for sick people). The Purge would have benefited from Chayefsky’s dialogue and his caustic satire on human stupidity. It might have been more sophisticated and accomplished. Still, it was made and is being distributed by Universal, and it manages to urge us to “fire that gun” while showing us how dire and compromised an institution America has become. The genre violence is insolently allied to the social criticism. If The Purge is as far-sighted as Network proved to be, we are in for very ugly times.
This is rather in the way Martin Scorsese, in his remake of Cape Fear, gave the three members of the menaced family their own flawed urges. Nick Nolte was a bad lawyer and a chronic adulterer. Jessica Lange’s wife was profoundly unsatisfied. And Juliette Lewis’s daughter was one of the most plausibly reckless teenagers in American film.
David Thomson is a film critic for The New Republic.