Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Cult-Movie Review: The Purge (2013)

“…there are 47 percent…who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. ... My job is not to worry about those people.

-Mitt Romney (2012)

The science-fiction horror thriller The Purge (2013) takes place in a dystopian-styled future world where the wealthy elite have thoroughly internalized Mitt Romney’s 2012 “makers and takers” narrative (quoted above) and re-created America in that very image. They have done so intentionally and purposefully, and branded themselves the U.S.’s “new founding fathers.”

This film from James DeMonaco thus showcases what might reasonably occur when Americans by-and-large decide that nearly half-of-their fellow citizens are worthless moochers who -- shockingly -- feel entitled “to food!”   How dare they?

Long story short: it’s okay to kill such moochers, because they are just miserable takers sucking off the tit of an otherwise healthy society.  The new founding fathers have thus pinpointed a way to cut out society’s apparent “fat:” by imposing one 12-hour period of lawlessness a year in which all crimes, even murder, are legal. 

During that span, called “The Purge,” many of the rich especially enjoy murdering representatives of the so-called 47 percent, who, in keeping with Romney’s coded comment, tend to be of an ethnic minority, or live in poverty.  Those people don’t actually see themselves as victims,  as the quotation suggests, however, but those executing the violence of the purge certainly do…

I realize some readers don’t like it when politics are mentioned here regarding movie analysis.

That’s fine, but if you can’t intelligently talk politics in regards to movies sometimes, you have nothing left to interpret or discuss, except special effects, or performances.  And there are plenty of other movie blogs out there that will focus on those subjects.

But as I've said before, I believe every movie is a reflection of its times and context to one degree or another. 

Some movies carry messages that might be considered conservative (think of Zardoz [1974] with its re-assertion of traditional family values over the left-leaning “communes” of its age), and some movies carry messages that may be considered liberal (think of John Carpenter’s take-down of the Reagan Revolution in They Live [1988]). 

If we ignore what those films “say” in terms of their visuals, narrative, and thematic content, we aren’t fully engaging with and understanding that work, or the artist’s intent.

But more than either of those two science fiction films, perhaps, The Purge is really an incendiary polemic, a work of art which knowingly and determinedly raises controversial issues so as to play the role of agent provocateur.

The Purge has already been frequently compared to Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964), a series that played the role of provocateur on a regular basis, and which created fictional dystopian societies that commented on conformity (“Eye of the Beholder,” “Number 12 Looks Just Like You,”) or illiteracy (“The Obsolete Man”) to name just two issues.  

The Purge takes our world’s current fascination with the “makers and takers” narrative, Ayn Rand philosophy, and gun rights issues to forge a cold-hearted, futuristic world in which the answer to American prosperity is not to lift all boats, but to shoot holes in the boats that are already sinking.

As a critic, I admire The Purge for so nimbly tying together virtually every aspect of our current national debate into a polemic of such power, rage, and imagination.  My only wish is that the film  used logic more liberally in terms of character behavior, and cleared-up some relationship points between the dramatis personae so that the details of the story were more absorbing or suspenseful.

In other words, The Purge works better as a searing polemic than it does as an actual story that makes sense, or features characters we are meant to care for.  I still would give the film a recommendation, however, for the issues and context it addresses with such brawny, blazing imagination.  

It’s been a long-time since we have gotten a dystopian film of such raw power and energy (I was reminded, actually, of the cut-throat British film No Blade of Grass [1970] in that regard).  Accordingly, The Purge might be forgiven its story and character trespasses -- of which there are many -- because it sincerely attempts to function on almost entirely cerebral or intellectual territory.

In a summer blockbuster season, that's no small achievement, perhaps. Where most movies are dumb and appeal to the lowest common denominator, The Purge is smart and scary.

In the year 2022, America has been “reborn” thanks to the “new” founding fathers.  The crime rate and unemployment are down, thanks to the institution of “the Purge,” an annual 12-hour spree of violence in which all crimes are legal.

As the 2022 purge nears, affluent security-system salesman James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) goes into home lock-down mode with his wife, Mary (Lena Headey), his daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and son Charlie (Max Burkholder). 

But during the purge, young Charlie witnesses a bloody stranger (Edwin Hodge) crying out for help beyond the Sandin home, and releases the security system to permit him access. 

Unfortunately, the bloody stranger is being pursued by a group of rich, preppy “purgers” who see Charlie’s decision to save the bloody stranger as a violation of their Constitutional rights.  

They inform the Sandins that the Bloody Stranger must be released, or the purgers will break into the house and kill everyone…including the Sandins...

The Purge hinges on a basic question of morality.  

That question involves the nature of the Bloody Stranger.  He is a black man, and homeless, according to the dialogue in the film.  Because he is defined as a “taker" in terms of this future-society, then, does that mean he deserves to die?  Does he have no value at all?

More to the point, does the Bloody Stranger's nature as one of the “non-elite” mean that his life counts less than Mr. Sandin’s life does, or Mrs. Sandin’s, or Charlie’s, or Zoey’s?   Is it right to trade his life for theirs because he has the wrong skin color, or was unlucky enough to be born in the wrong neighborhood

Because the Bloody Stranger can’t afford to contribute in the way that Mr. Sandin can, is he a “moocher,” and a “vermin,” as the lead purger suggests?  

And does being without money or a home mean that you have nothing worthwhile to contribute to society, and therefore deserve to be killed?

If one believes in the makers vs. takers argument, then The Purge presents the logical conclusion to that brand of thinking.  If people are to be judged bad and useless because they feel entitled “to food” and to health care, as Romney suggest in his unforced comments, then what should their punishment be for that perceived trespass? 

Now, this may be a slippery slope argument.  Romney most certainly wasn't advocating the murder of Americans.  But the point is this: once political rhetoric divides American people into makers and takers, discounting almost fifty percent of the population in the process, is it at all unlikely that hatred and judgment are stoked in some quarters towards those takers?

And if the line of demarcation is that the “moocher” people feel entitled “to food,” then it’s even worse than that. Food is a basic survival need.  I mean…who doesn’t feel that their children are entitled to eat?  

How many Americans, I wonder, really, fall into the category of having depending on government to get through a tough time?  If we believe the statistics, then it is actually closer to 96% of Americans who are “moochers” and “takers.”  Every time you take a mortgage deduction on your house, for instance, you are relying on government assistance..  Every time you take out a loan for your education, you're doing it too.  And when your grandparents rely on Medicare for their health needs?  Same thing.

They're all moochers extraordinaire, by this heartless philosophy of life.

And what does that number, 96% take us to? 

It takes us to the paradigm established by Occupy Wall Street approximately two years ago, the division between the 99% and the 1%.  Indeed, that equation seems to be the very division that The Purge is actually playing upon.  

Notice, for instance, that the Sandins live in a very upper-class gated community of McMansions.  In the past decade, most middle-classers have been priced out of that life-style, so again, what we’re talking about here is a world of the ultra-rich vs. everyone else.

That same dynamic appears in the nature of the film’s villain, the masked “purger” who is clearly the scion of some ultra-rich family, right down to his prep-school/academy uniform.  This purger is not only well-educated, but entitled about his rights.  He feels his constitutional rights are being violated because he is not allowed to kill a homeless person, and in this case, the law is on his side.   The laws in this case seem to have been made by the few, to perpetrate violence on the many. 

A key moment in the film also establishes the inherent unfairness of the purge.  What happens to people who can’t afford The Sandin’s expensive security system?  

On the night of the purge, they are on their own.  No help. No police, no firemen, no emergency services.

In a not entirely oblique way, this facet of the film is the critique of Ayn Rand, I mentioned above, a philosopher who believed in enlightened self-interest, and the benefits of a true meritocracy, called “objectivism.”  

Yet what some people might remind us at this juncture is that Ayn Rand never accounted for the fact that for a true meritocracy to exist, everybody must start at the same point, not at different points in the race we call life.  If everyone is to have the same access to the American Dream, or the same opportunities that a meritocracy implies, then they all must begin on the same starting line, or in lieu of that, at least get help in the form of oversight from government to ameliorate the difference.   

For example: how hard was it really for Mitt Romney to succeed as a businessman given his starting place in life as the son of a wealthy entrepreneur and former state governor?  

Now contrast that starting point with the poor kid who was raised with a father in jail, and with a single mother working two-shifts a day. Is that mother a moocher and a taker, or someone who didn’t get the same shot as Romney did to begin with?  She's working fifty hours a week but still poor...so is her child entitled "to food?"

One could reasonably conclude that this is the inherent unfairness and fallacy of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, if applied as a philosophy of governing.

The Purge goes further and says that in the new age of American prosperity, the rich actually get the benefits of their wealth in terms of their very continued survival.  They can afford the weapons to defend themselves and kill others, as well as the security systems they require to protect their families.  These are defenses that the poor can’t afford.

The film also suggests that the purge is actually a new form of corporate welfare: a tool specifically utilized to drive up gun sales (as the closing radio voice-over establishes) and security system sales at the same time that it drives down the number of poor “takers” mooching off the system. 

There’s also evidence of modern Congressional hypocrisy at work here in the workings of the purge.  Just as many in Congress have refused to give up their lavish healthcare benefits while simultaneously denying it to America at-large, The Purge reveals that members of Congress are immune to the dictates of the Purge.  They have thus exempted themselves from the danger that they expose Americans to every single year.   

In other words, it’s the Purge for thee, and not for me.

What’s so impressive about The Purge is the way it accounts for all of these roiling factors and ideas in modern America, from the corporate/government nexus, to the influx of Ayn Rand’s philosophies in the public square.  

But the final question the movie raises is one of paramount importance: Is this the kind of America you really want?  Where your fellow American is deemed worthy of death because he or she has faced some hard times, because he or she feel entitled to…food?

The Purge explores these ideas with imagination and sometimes to the exclusion of narrative clarity, alas  For instance, the Sandins in the film continue to separate from one another during the invasion on their home, a factor which provides for repetitive, multiple and tiresome hostage opportunities.  You would think that after one such hostage situation, the family would get the message, and stick together. 

Similarly, the film makes a major point about young Charlie feeling upset about the nature and violence of the purge.  This anxiety about such a dangerous night is natural, at least starting out.  But Charlie looks to be twelve or thirteen years old, and so he would have gone through this family and national ritual several times already.  His fears would already be quelled.  He’d know what the purge was all about, and not feel the level of anxiety he reveals in the film.

Alarmingly, the Sandins are a weird bunch too.  

They don’t relate like members of a normal family, and in a situation like the yearly purge, that’s a problem because as viewers, we immediately suspect that they could turn on one another in a heartbeat.  Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey have no chemistry together whatsoever, and so as they sip their huge goblets of red wine, one inevitably wonders if Mrs. Sandin has poisoned her husband, or is looking to kill him in some other way.  

The Sandins also have a discussion at one point about whether or not the family has ever gone out and “purged.”  They meet eyes, and a pregnant look crosses between them.  A shared secret?

But whatever experience they seem to be remembering and sharing is never transmitted to the audience...and it seems important given the film's context.  Did they kill someone?  Do they not really believe in the purge philosophy?  

The film’s polemic would be stronger with more information about how these protagonists actually feel about this new, government-imposed ritual. Mr. and Mrs. Sandin are, after all, old enough to remember a time before the purge.   They spout propaganda about the purge, but viewers don't ever know if this is just a parroting of said propaganda or genuine belief.

Finally, however, The Purge succeeds because it culminates with an incredibly powerful idea: that real strength comes not in killing the weak, but in showing mercy and love to those less-fortunate than yourself; those who have not had the breaks that you received  

The Sandin family continues to exist after a night of purging because of one act of mercy that it shows the Bloody Stranger.  Abraham Lincoln once noted that mercy often bears  “richer fruits” than strict justice, and the film’s conclusion is an example of that fact.  A good deed is returned, thus proving the inherent value of the "moocher," since he understands what he has been given, and returns that gift in kind.

We will always be a strong nation when we take care of our brothers and sisters, says The Purge, rather than disdaining those who weren’t born into lives of excessive wealth and privilege.  

For (per William Blake) "where mercy, love, and pity dwell, there God is dwelling too."


  1. John, this scenario has already taken place, and there has already been a wonderful movie about it. Hotel Rwanda has many similarities to The Purge. In it, Paul, a Hutu hotel manager with a Tutsi wife, makes the decision to protect in his hotel Tutsi refugees from the Hutus who have been driven into a violent frenzy and are butchering Tutsis all over the country. While the West watches on heartlessly and protects its own, Paul is condemned as a traitor by his fellow Hutus and disavowed for protecting the Tutsi 'cockroaches'.

    Romney's comment about the nature of givers and takers could accurately be applied to UN's attitude towards Africa in the case of Rwanda. Their priority was clearly the evacuation of all whites from Rwanda, leaving the Rwandans to their death.

    Genocide is made possible the moment men are able to rationalize dehumanising other men. In my opinion, Hotel Rwanda is a less violent but more harrowing film that covers much of the same thematic ground as The Purge.

    1. Jez,

      That's a fascinating connection that I had not made. But you're right, the problem in both situations is dehumanizing "the other" so that violence against them is not only acceptable, but encouraged. I need to watch Hotel Rwanda again, given this thesis, and your thoughts on it.

      Great comment!

  2. John, very sobering review. I hope that our America never devolves into this dystopian nightmare without morality. I know that Americans are among the most charitable people and the United States is extremely prompt in aiding other countries with humanitarian aid too. Barack Obama did not start out at the economic level of Mitt Romney. However, he won the presidency against both a battle with Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries and twice elected. This tells me that he surpassed his origins and the American dream survives. The Purge feels like an intense even darker remake of the Star Trek TOS episode "Return Of The Archons". This truly is a film with a Rod Serling Twilight Zone basis.


    1. SGB:

      I totally agree with your hopes about America. This is a great country, and as you point out, Barack Obama beat money, legacy, and the establishment to twice be elected President.

      Even if a person doesn't agree with his politics, this should be cause for cheering: a big acknowledgment that entrenched interests don't always win and that this is still the land of opportunity, regardless of skin color.

      I agree with you, as well, about the nods to Star Trek and the Twilight Zone in "The Purge." In a sense, this is good old topical science fiction, the kind of thing we haven't seen in theaters for some time.

      Thoughtful, optimistic comment, my friend, and I'm on the same page...


  3. Tobe Whooper1:24 AM

    Insightful analysis as always. One additional thing I noticed is that the Bloody Stranger is visibly coded as a military man: he wears prominent dog tags and an army-type jacket. This adds another layer to the film's polemic with a comment on the country's treatment of its veterans. This man, who served his nation in the military, is allowed to become homeless and a pawn in the rich man's bloody game.
    Now that I've (finally) seen the film, I can't wait for the sequel, which promises a larger look at the society the first movie hints at. Happy hunting!


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