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'The Purge': Lawful, But Not Helpful

By grounding the violence of his barely veiled speculative fiction in the here-and-now, James DeMonaco risks inciting an audience beyond the walls of the cinema.

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.

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