[7 June 2013]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“This night allows people a release for the hatred and violence and aggression they feel,” says James (Ethan Hawke). “This night saved our country.” It’s 2022, and as James instructs his 12-year-old son Charlie (Max Burkholder) on recent US history by way of some awfully familiar-sounding pronouncements, the boy looks skeptical. He’s not sold on the idea that the 12 hours called the Purge—in The Purge—serve quite this function. And so he tells his dad and mom, Mary (Lena Headey), that he’d rather spend those hours in his room than with them, settled into their designer sofa in front of the widescreen TV to watch Purge footage—brutal assaults, rapes, and murders time-coded and located by surveillance cameras on what appear to be every street and every back of a barn in the United States.
James and Mary look disappointed, but The Purge—a surprisingly decent horror parable—makes it easy at this early moment for you to see what Charlie sees. That is, the footage, piled on under the opening credits, is horrific, like all those viral YouTube uploads of kids attacking homeless men, homeless men robbing old ladies, bullies punching school bus drivers. The responsibility for this popularity might be distributed widely, among assailants, videomakers, consumers, and the venue that profits from all of it, but the question here is less whom you might blame than what the popularity means, what it tells you about our moment, now and not exactly re-imagined in 2022.
The current popularity of such videos—whether shot by perpetrators or by official monitoring equipment—is worrisome in itself, a point made clear in The Purge‘s opening montage of just such images. Even before James explains—awkwardly, too emphatically—the New Founding Fathers’ justification for the night of violence, and the TV reports that the crime rate is reduced to one percent for the rest of the year, you see it’s bogus, that someone, somewhere is playing Hunger Game-style tricks on a terminally foolish population. What this movie adds in is a set of protagonists who benefit from the violence, as James sells high tech security systems for a living, telling himself and his family that he he’s not part of the problem, that he’s only doing what he must do to keep them safe.
Of course, this mantra must be put to a test, a severe one, and so Charlie doesn’t just retreat to his room and start running his own surveillance mechanism—a camera fitted into the head of a burned up baby-doll on wheels he calls Timmy—throughout the house. Timmy catches one of the many monitors looking onto the street outside their very gated home, where an unnamed, black Bloody Stranger (Edwin Hodge) calls out for help. He’s being chased by a pack of kids dressed up in prep school jackets, Charles-Manson-Girl gauzy white dresses, and odious masks. He knows he hasn’t got a chance, and still, he calls out to the night air.
When Charlie lets the Stranger into his family’s home, his parents are appalled. But at the very moment James pulls his very expensive handgun on the stranger, he’s distracted by his rebellious daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and her banned boyfriend Henry (Tony Oller), and the moment goes zany, with the relations of potential aggressors and victims alike turned inside out, everyone scattering to different parts of their large (and recently expanded, owing to James’ exceptional salesmanship) home.
All of this confusion leads to the next set of expanding confusions, introduced by those creepy young hunters in masks, who arrive on James’ doorstep demanding the return of their prey, the black man. The leader of the psycho-killer pack, the Polite Stranger (Rhys Wakefield), smiles up at the front door’s surveillance lens, his face wide and distorted, as he threatens James with all manner of mayhem (pointing to an instance of his ferocity, he teases, “That will be thee”). At once monstrous and perfectly logical products of the Founding Fathers’ vision, the pack lounges outside the house, dancing and smoking cigarettes, swinging their axes and machetes and automatic weapons, cutting off the electricity (to the lights, anyway, as the monitors still work so Charlie can keep watching them lounging and swinging), asserting their right to kill whomever they want, including James and his family.
James learns his lesson quickly, of course, urged by Charlie and Zoey and also Mary, who comes around a moment or two after she agrees to help her husband duct-tape and torture the Bloody Stranger. That you know this lesson going in means you’re not exactly along for James’ ride, though the film invites your visceral sympathy by sending James and Mary with flashlights and guns in separate directions through their once invulnerable home, now turned into the Scary Place you should never enter if you’re in a horror movie.
The shots of their journeys through corridors and peering through windows are the same shots you’ve seen in other movies, but 1. the metaphor is overwhelming: they’ve built this thing, and now they’ve got to survive it. And 2. the visuals are consistently terrific, such that even those images you’ve seen hundreds of times (narrow hallways, grainy videos, robots on wheels, jump scares, vicious to-the-death fights and screaming girls) are mesmeric as aesthetic choices instead of plot points (credit to cinematographer Jacques Jouffret, editor Peter Gvozdas, and production designer Melanie Jones).
It’s not news that horror movie victims might be implicated as causing their own their troubles: pretty girls (like Zoey) shouldn’t unbutton their blouses in front of boys, wealthy white people shouldn’t flaunt their wealth or their whiteness, and little tech-head boys shouldn’t tamper with the order of the universe. But for all its moral obviousness and repetition of what you already know, The Purge does offer ongoing complications in the midst of seemingly reductive cautionary tales.
Chief among these complications is the Bloody Stranger, whose mostly anomalous blackness (one of the wealthy, resentful neighbors, played by Tisha French, is black too) on one level overstates his meaning in this context. Much like the chained-up black zombie-soldier, Mailer (Marvin Campbell), in 28 Days Later, the Bloody Stranger represents one thing to the clueless folks in his world and something else to you, who should know better. He doesn’t talk much—owing in part to James’ manic duct-taping, but also to his own wise, weary understanding of his captors and would-be killers.
As he looks up at Mary, taped to a chair in her home, the shot insists you spot his glinting dog tags. Though no one mentions these, you get what’s at stake. This unspoken background informs the Bloody Stranger’s decisions over the course of the film, about whom or what to trust, whom to help and whom to fight, even whom he might speak with, earnestly or not. This background speaks as well to his crediting as the Bloody Stranger—not, say, the Black Stranger. As he embodies the legacy of the New Founding Fathers, he also embodies the legacy of all American founders, the legacy that is the same as this new one. That the embodiment is both obvious and oblique tells its own story.