‘The Purge’: Lawful, But Not Helpful

[7 August 2014]

By Thomas Britt

There is no anarchy in The Purge: Anarchy, James DeMonaco’s sequel to his profitable 2013 home invasion horror movie, The Purge. Both films envision a near-future (2022-23) America wherein all crime is legal for one night per year, in a national holiday known as the Purge. The film’s fictional government, known as the New Founding Fathers, establishes the rules for this organized chaos, which has resulted in drastic reductions of unemployment, crime, and violence.

On all sides of the Purge holiday debate are characters that cannot stop talking about the rules. Up and down the economic scale, a majority of them try to find ways to profit from, or exercise their own frustrations through, the framework of the rules. The New Founding Fathers make up the sort of totalitarian government audiences are encouraged to distrust. Yet most citizens within the film are all too eager to benefit in some way from the expression of discontent that government has granted them (for one night only). Even the most rebellious citizens wait for the sanctioned time to protest their government. Anarchy this is not.

And yet, there sits the word “anarchy” in the title—an enticement for audiences to pay money to participate in the quasi-lawlessness of DeMonaco’s speculative fiction. This specious marketing is emblematic of larger issues with the Purge series. Common among the low-to-mixed critical responses is an acknowledgment that the crime free-for-all premise is their foremost feature. But close examination of the films reveals that DeMonaco habitually and ignorantly undermines that very hook that is the foundation for his series. In his exploitation of class struggle, use of genre conventions, and approach to screen violence, DeMonaco nullifies nearly every point he intends to make about crime and power in America.

Money and Power

From a business standpoint, however, DeMonaco’s timing is right. Popular media like The Hunger Games, In Time, Divergent, Under the Dome, Revolution, The Last Ship and many others have stoked mainstream tastes for stories with conflicts involving social stratification, social control, scarce resources, dictatorial governments, rationing, extermination, and other fear-inducing scenarios. In these books, films, television shows, and other media, audiences are free to spot parallels to present stresses of the national and/or global economy. It’s clear that there is no shortage of money to be made from stirring audiences’ worries about access to resources.
Last year’s The Purge had a production budget of $3million (US) and grossed nearly $90 million (US) in worldwide box office. The Purge: Anarchy, with a budget of $9 million US, debuted to a box office gross of nearly $30 million US dollars in its opening weekend alone. Mind you, this is a series that crassly exploits tensions between the “haves and have-nots”. And though the “haves” within the films are vilified at every turn, the release of each installment so far has placed the director and producers more firmly in the haves’ camp. Perhaps the incoherence of the Purge films stems in part from this fundamental tension—that of the financially privileged making a film about the evil of financial privilege and marketing it to working-class and middle-class moviegoers.

James Sandin (Ethan Hawke), the protagonist of the first installment, is a have among haves. He lives in a wealthy neighborhood and has enhanced his wealth by selling security systems to his neighbors. At dinner with his family, he proudly announces that his “division sold the most upgraded security systems” and that means he’s “on top”. Of course in DeMonaco’s world, this means Sandin deserves some measure of comeuppance, even if he’s the closest thing the movie has to a central character. Though he and his wife do not feel the need to “purge”, he rationalizes to his sensitive son that “this night saved our country” from the scourges of “poverty and all the crime”.

When that same sensitive son extends compassion and lets an unfortunate, hunted stranger (played by Edwin Hodge) into the fortified family house, the act jeopardizes the wealth-secured safety Sandin and his family enjoy. As a plot reversal, this situation has the potential to illustrate the effects of economic equalization. Does it produce resentment, or attainment of mutual understanding, or something else altogether?

We never find out, because DeMonaco doesn’t use the collision of two classes within one home to support his thesis about the inequity of the economy. He doesn’t even bother to give the hunted man a name. Add to this, the stranger’s racial difference from the Sandin family (they’re white, he’s black), and the fact that his entrance to the wealthy community precipitates the destruction of a home and family, and the movie’s class argument unintentionally warps to the favor of the elites.

The primary villains of the film want to pursue the hunted man who has found an uneasy sanctuary in the Sandin home. Dressed in his prep-school best, the leader of these “invaders” refers to his group as “the haves”—“fine, young, very educated” people out to “cleanse [their] souls” by killing the “homeless pig” who “doesn’t know his place.” He says to Sandin, “Don’t force us to hurt you. We don’t want to kill our own.” His on-the-nose dialogue erases any sense of menace he might represent. And as the film descends into have-on-have violence, the supposed victim remains unnamed and unknown, little more than an afterthought. His status as an embodiment of the underclass is utterly wasted by the writer/director.

As if aware of the first film’s deficiency of any well-rounded working- or middle-class characters, DeMonaco attempts to stack his sequel with them. Waitress Eva Sanchez (Carmen Ejogo) and her co-workers exhort each other to “stay safe” as they end their shift at a diner. DeMonaco’s usual heavy-handed exposition is on display, as Sanchez mentions that she cannot afford her father’s medicine. Repeatedly, men in her urban, working-class neighborhood approach her with offers for “protection”—barely veiled threats of violence on the brink of a holiday of violence. 

The plot line that features Sanchez and her daughter Cali (Zoë Soul) introduces ludicrous variations on the rich-versus-poor conflict at the heart of DeMonaco’s worldview. The sick father appears once and then disappears, explaining in a letter, “I’ll be a martyr for a wealthy family tonight.” Sanchez explains to her daughter that to buy poor folks and kill them in the safety of fancy homes is “how the wealthy purge, baby.”

The Purge: Anarchy offers parodic versions of both rich and poor. The rich all appear to use the holiday to perform ritual sacrifices on/of the poor, appealing to some ungodly governmental power as they “cleanse” by “releasing the beast”. Many of the poor are also psychologically bound to the government, with two separate supporting characters shouting, “It’s my night to purge!” and “This is my right granted to me by my government” before attempting or succeeding to kill others. They would rather kill than lose this benefit.

And the few characters that express a desire to act outside of the framework provided by the government are nothing more than mouthpieces for political or economic arguments. In a business district, a crucified stockbroker hangs, the sign above him reading “He stole our pensions, now he’s gone.” As Carmelo, a paramilitary revolutionary with a YouTube channel, excellent actor Michael K. Williams is reduced to delivering facile dialogue that would be wearying on cable news and is insufferable in a feature film. His contribution to the film is to repeat tired phrases like “profit making is not the essence of democracy”.

When the Sanchez daughter, a big fan of Carmelo, meets her ideological hero in the middle of an active urban war zone, she uses that moment (!) to chat him up about an idea he once expressed on the limits of “the market mentality”. As this is happening, capitalists dressed for a weekend shooting party play the most dangerous game with our captive working- and middle-class characters. DeMonaco casts a Cindy McCain lookalike as the emcee of the party, while apparent stand-ins for the Romney sons fist-bump one another in anticipation of killing off the lower class.

Such specificity of political analogy and argument is too entwined with contemporary partisan rhetoric, requiring no imagination and asking none of the audience. It also underpins the second major failing of the Purge series. DeMonaco sacrifices surprise and subtext for political dogma and defangs his movies in the process. Though marketed as horror films, these movies wholly lack one of the most important ingredients of the genre, which is fear of the unknown.

Horror without Horror

One way to read The Purge is as a contagion film, insofar as a large majority of the populace has developed the killing bug and will release it en masse. In case the audience misunderstands this premise, experts and civilians spell it out in radio and television reports, over and over again (particularly within the first movie). The popular phrase used to express the act of purging is “release the beast”. But if the beast of aggression is so easily identifiable, the rules for releasing it are determined by the government, and the limited transformation of the individual/society is literally set to a clock, then there’s nothing left to fear.

By contrast, consider The Walking Dead. The popular AMC television series, adapted from Robert Kirkman’s comic book, imagines the adventures of survivors and zombies within a zombie apocalypse scenario. The television series is often criticized for its dearth of plot advancement relative to number of episodes/seasons. But the fact that the source of the contagion is (and remains) unknown is central to the sustained horror of the series as a whole.

In March 2012, former showrunner Glen Mazzara explained the show’s use of horror and the unknown to The Hollywood Reporter, saying, “…right now the cause of the zombie outbreak seems irrelevant. I always want the show to play like a horror movie every week. If you define what caused the outbreak, that puts us in a world of science fiction, and this isn’t science fiction to me, it’s horror.”

Another sort of horror at which DeMonaco reaches but fails to grasp is the invasion film. Films in this subgenre of horror also benefit from unknown motivations. David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s Them (2006) and Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers (2008) are recent examples of movies that generate scares by destroying the idea of the home as a safe zone. Neither film offers a rational explanation for invasion.

This absence of motivation is both emotionally unsettling and contributes an experiential dimension of what it feels like to be caught unaware and invaded. In The Purge, however, when a stranger comes knocking, he is either on the run from murderous capitalists or he is that murderous capitalist. The Purge: Anarchy adds a third type, which is that character so marginalized by the murderous capitalists that he or she may as well “get theirs” by murdering, as well. In any case, there is no mystery, just murder.

When Incitement Is Joined by Excitement

For contemporary filmmakers, perhaps the most lingering cinematic forebear of both contagion and invasion traditions is George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Across the years, critics and viewers have attached all sorts of sociopolitical subtexts to the film, but none of those affects the essential circumstances of the plot: Reanimated corpses are trying to get into this house. We don’t know what caused them. We don’t agree with each other on how to deal with them. Will we survive this night? For more than four decades, no political or social winds of change have reduced or fundamentally altered the impact of the film. Such sturdiness is an outgrowth of Romero’s bold view of the unknown. 

In the process of so easily and quickly activating his character’s supposed need to kill, DeMonaco encourages his audience to cheer the ultra-violence of James Sandin’s confrontation with all of the invaders, rich and poor.

The biggest missed opportunity in DeMonaco’s failure to explore the unknown of horror or horror of the unknown is in the ability to say something—anything—insightful about the nature of evil. Deliver Us from Evil, Scott Derrickson’s 2014 exercise in adding a dash of horror to the buddy cop/police procedural genres, is a middling movie. Yet it includes a discussion of “primary” and “secondary” evil that contributes to a thought-provoking third act.

Despite many flaws, the moment in the film when the monstrous villain is convicted of his “secondary” evil through exposure of its “primary” source is undeniable in its power to affect the way viewers conceptualize horrible acts of man. Also, that experience within the film turns the examination inward to ask the protagonist (and by extension, the audience) about his own capacity for transgression. Thus in a roundabout way, Derrickson’s film inverts the question of Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder (2012). Rather than ponder, “What is this love that loves us?” Deliver Us from Evil asks, “What is this hate that hates us?” It’s a big question.

DeMonaco, on the other hand, presents evil as an economic force, plain and simple. The “secondary” activity is the wilding/wrongdoing. Yet that is neatly activated and deactivated by the government’s sirens, which signal the beginning and ending of the Purge holiday. The films’ quasi-religious content, invoking God and blessings and cleansing, is especially puzzling. It has no root within the films’ moral equation, which turns entirely on money and weapons. In The Purge: Anarchy, the members of a wealthy family collectively pray before killing Sanchez’ martyr father in a ritual sacrifice. But the object of their prayers seems to be the Purge itself, a holiday turned deity.

The sacrifice the martyred father in The Purge (2012)

The sacrifice of the martyred father in The Purge (2012)


Get Ready to Bleed

The final problem with the Purge series is its duplicitous attitude toward this worship of violence. I don’t doubt the sincerity of DeMonaco’s stated concerns about the violence in American society. On a certain level, there is cause for alarm. In recent months, reports and/or footage of the so-called “knock-out game” violence, the mob beating of Steven Utash, the roadside beating of Marlene Pinnock by a police officer, and the eventually fatal chokehold used by a group of officers against Eric Garner, have contributed to an impression of endemic violence from coast to coast. Much of this violence is retributive in nature or evokes a sense of lawlessness, qualities that align with The Purge‘s vision of contemporary American aggression.

However, DeMonaco doesn’t appear to have considered the negative effects of presenting and aestheticizing that sort of violence for his audience. The first film begins with security camera images of shootings and beatings, virtually indistinguishable from the real-life surveillance footage that often accompanies reports of violence in the news. In the film, these clips are attributed to “Purge-Feeds”, which enable an audience of observers to gauge the “success” of the holiday. By grounding the violence of his barely veiled speculative fiction in the visible evidence of the here-and-now, he risks merging the two and inciting an audience beyond the walls of the cinema.

To return briefly to some earlier, contrasting examples: Consider The Walking Dead and The Hunger Games. Both occur in story-worlds that are (in significant and recognizable ways) not our own. Yet both have managed to raise questions about participation in violence that could be applied to the conditions of the real world/nation. The Hunger Games reinforces the value of compassion, even in the heightened context of a kill-or-be-killed playing field.

In The Walking Dead, the arc involving Dale and his argument to not let hopeless conditions drain the group of its humanity, ends violently. But the presence of such perspectives, and the philosophical discussion they create among viewers, elevate The Walking Dead to something more than a weekly exhibition of blood-and-guts. 
For the characters of The Purge, however, there is no use in trying to avoid participation in violence, because DeMonaco is a filmmaker that does not think beyond bloodshed. Following the observed violence of the Purge-Feeds and the invasion of a safeguarded home, Sandin has a brief conversation with the unfortunate stranger/invader. He offers the man a range of exactly two options: die like a man or die like a coward. Within minutes, Sandin and his wife are no longer making offers, but instead sadistically torturing the man.

A subsequent reversal of behavior (based on his kids’ reactions to the violence) finds Sandin changing opponents, rising to be the hero, and attempting to ward off the privileged villains/invaders. The ease with which Sandin releases his own “beast” separates him from the lineage of invasion/contagion film protagonists who at least try to resist succumbing to the behavior that separates “us” and “them”.

And in the process of so easily and quickly activating his character’s supposed need to kill, DeMonaco encourages his audience to cheer the ultra-violence of Sandin’s confrontation with all of the invaders, rich and poor. Incitement is joined by excitement. In fact, four separate moments of peril climax with last-minute rescues involving weapons. DeMonaco, so critical of gun culture in his interviews, nonetheless culminates his movie with repeated (gratuitous, even) instances of the saving power of gunfire. It’s a pro-gun movie with anti-gun marketing.

There is another way to tell this story. Funny Games (1997), written and directed by Michael Haneke, is an invasion film that drains all excitement from the subgenre. Haneke explores the bafflement, dread, and helplessness of a family unexpectedly without freedom in its own home. The defining moment of the film subverts the fantasy of retribution that movies often perpetuate.

Without spoiling the scene, suffice it to say the audience is punished for its rapt desire to see someone—even a villain—blown away by gunfire onscreen. So Funny Games is a movie about cruelty. And Haneke’s didacticism could be considered cruel. But no reasonable viewer would mistake Funny Games for an endorsement of cruelty, because the writer/director is deeply critical of the thirst for violence, specifically in movies.

The latest installment of The Purge becomes a rallying cry for murderous vengeance. Yes, the “guns save lives” message from the first movie reappears here as Sanchez and her daughter are saved from would-be captors. As an event of the plot, this is unimaginative, not to mention contradictory given DeMonaco’s criticism of guns, but it poses no significant moral or ethical quandary. The characters are in danger, and then they’re not. Repeat.

Rather, the larger problem arrives with the revolutionary character Carmelo and his status as the film’s foremost source of moral authority. Though DeMonaco’s script doesn’t allow the character to ever gain any dimensions beyond the flat characterization of a YouTube agitator, his function within the plot becomes more important as events transpire.

At first, he’s in the background, occasionally moving to the front of the story world as the inspiration for young would-be activists such as Eva’s daughter. But by the end of the film, he and his militia storm the shooting party to save the lower class and exterminate the upper class. Carmelo says, “Change only comes when their blood spills!” and “Get ready to bleed, rich bitches!”

How is an audience supposed to respond to such a call to action? Form militias and kill the wealthy? DeMonaco has said and done so much to announce the ideological aims of his films and their adjacency to the contemporary American political landscape that it’s not possible to separate the entertainment value from the incitement.

For that matter, isn’t there more to be gained by exploring how a series like The Purge became profitable entertainment in the first place? As DeMonaco’s characters go about the business of “releasing the beast”, he and his producers calculate the profit potential of another sequel for another summer release. Likely missing is contemplation about their own role in stirring the societal chaos for another year, lest it interrupt plans to continue releasing this beast and keep the money rolling in.

Associate Professor of Film and Video Studies at George Mason University.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/184195-the-purge-lawful-but-not-helpful/