Western civilization has an extensive history of repression of things we deem “taboo,” yet it’s odd that violence is rarely seen of as one of these. Despite its destructive nature, media and news seem both all too eager to report it, and then move on from it as though violent acts were nothing more then a human tornado whose inevitability we must accept and grow stronger as we rebuild our shattered human nerves. There are some who would argue that as long as we continue to treat violence like necessary evil of the world, we will never achieve a truly enlightened sense of harmony with our fellow man.
But what if we could limit that violence to only one day a year? One day to live as savages in exchange for 364 days of peace and prosperity? Could channeling violence stop it from ruling our lives, and in this “Purge” of primal lust would we become more or less human?
Billed as a “Speculative thriller,” The Purge takes this scenario and applies it to the familiar “home invasion” movie set in a dystopia that really isn’t any different from our own. In this theoretical future of America, our new “Governing Fathers” enacted The Purge ten years ago as a measure to combat our massive economic distress and poverty by unifying the nation. While it is in effect, all emergency services are disconnected and all violent crimes are permissible, with the somewhat cheeky exception being the government itself. It’s an idea Sigmund Freud might have dreamed up, only to dismiss it as too radical despite the various talking heads on TV that repeatedly mention how it has improved the average quality of life in the country.
While some of the high class purchase comprehensive security systems like the one designed by James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) that turn the annual Purge into a 12 hour lockdown, others take the opportunity to hold “parties” where they re-enact the pig scene from The Lord Of The Flies and hunt the lower class with radical Darwinism as their calling. These two worlds come to a head for James and his wife Mary (Lena Headey) and their two children when a moment of compassion for a torn and bloodied outsider (Edwin Hodge) results in group of masked strangers marking him and his family as new targets in this night of bloody release.
Despite the terrifying “Home as violated space” trope that feeds the horror on the outside, The Purge exists more in the realm of movies like Dredd 3D that enhance their plots through the surrounding ideas and themes that permeate the world. James’ place as a man who has profited from The Purge makes his decisions and interactions more meaningful then if he were just a victim of it, and his rationalizations provide the moral gray area that forces us to consider whether there is a difference between participating in The Purge, and standing by idly to watch it behind barred windows.
As characters, the Sandin family are not groundbreaking, yet strangely old-fashioned. Ethan Hawke initially shows us James’ ego-driven personality that could lead him to treat the event as just another challenge in the business world, yet the instant he and his family are under lock and key the facade begins to weaken as he is confronted by the sudden change in the world outside their doors.
Hawke summons determination to his sallow features that quickly becomes sweaty and shaking like a man in with a sniper trained on his head. Though he seems an odd choice for a leading man, Hawke’s recent stints in fellow horror films Sinister and Daybreakers illustrate that his performance is largely linked to the character’s range, and as such James Sandin is a serviceable if not memorable role for him.
If James’ must be the traditional masculine protector, then Mary Sandin is the character that experiences the most emotional and character growth. Lena Headey, known for playing cruel and manipulative she-wolfs (Cercei Lannister of Game of Thrones and Madeline Madrigal of the aforementioned Dredd) underplays her domestic side to show a woman who knows deep down how wrong The Purge is, but has no other resource like her husband does to protect herself and her children.
In this way, while most of James’ best scenes involve him tackling the problem head-on, Mary’s are when she is dealing with an overenthusiastic neighbor with an I’m-going-to-kill-you expression, or when confronting the home invaders with the righteous fury that has been dwelling in her eyes. In the end, she is a character first and a mother second, showing depth beyond just wanting her children to be safe.
Their kids, Charlie, and Zoey, are slightly more interesting then the usual “innocent child” and “vulnerable young girl” archetypes. Charlie has long black tech geek hair that differentiates him from the blond crewcut that would mark his “childhood” status, and spends most of the movie utilizing a bizarrely archaic remote controlled robot to view the house. He’s the one most disturbed by The Purge, checking his vitals like a hypochondriac even when his father tries to rationalize the purpose of the event, and there is subtle symbolism in the way he tries to put the outside world behind a screen, until reality intrudes.
In contrast to her brother, the first shot of Zoey is a barely restrained glimpse of thigh under a movie-length schoolgirl skirt, not so subtly showing Adelaide Kane’s youthful charms. She’s probably the closest character to a trope, with a vague anger at her father and the fact that she is dating an older guy who thinks it’s fine because she’s “mature for her age.” Being the teenage daughter, she is also the first to be threatened by the mixed sex party of delinquents, yet the movie shows admirable restraint in not making her safety a major cause for concern, with only two remarks hinting at such uncomfortable subject matter.
Her room suggests a diligent student who is both smart enough to call bullshit on The Purge, but her character is so mired in unspecified teenage angst that the potential for an intellectual opposite of James is neutralized. Strangely enough though, it’s through her character that The Purge throws its first narrative curve-ball, even though that ball seems to vanish out of frame and remain unexplained for the duration of the movie.
The “Purgers” who invade are led by a sophisticated sociopath in a business suit with the twisted aura of Patrick Bateman and the unsettling grin of The Joker. This “Polite Stranger” (Ryhs Wakefield) approaches the night with the passion of a delusional zealot mixed with the indignant privilege of an Ivy League grad so that he is both instantly hateable and instantly watchable in equal parts.
His homicidal collaborators all appear to have come from the same economic bracket, alternatively weird and disturbing in grinning masks like a drama class from hell. In their glee for The Purge they reveal the true intent of it as hidden call to class slaughter, the worst sort of evil that breeds whenever someone can justify the inferiority of another group in their own minds.
One of the unique touches of The Purge is how it portrays this free-for-all of violence and the horror that accompanies it. The invaders are not supernatural maniacs (Though they do tend to pop up when the Sandin’s are looking the other direction a lot) instead they are vandals who dress up to give themselves an aura of the uncanny to frighten their prey. Armed with dangerous looking knives and lyncher’s shotguns, they initially reside on the outside of the house, content to freak out the Sandins with creepy laughter and threatening poses on their security cameras. In one uniquely sadistic scene, they even tickle a person while restraining them, clearly drunk on the power of the night.
The Purge shows an abruptly practical sense of the Sandin’s struggle against them, opting for short bursts of action rather then elaborately choreographed take downs. It makes sense that a good number of encounters begin with both parties entering the room at the same time without noticing the other, while the winner turns out to be the one who brought the most useful weapon to the fight.
This realistic take on the scenes also underlines the ironic nature of being able to get away with anything violent, in that though lots might like to, they probably have so little experience that they don’t know how to.
After all the sneaking around and woefully inadequate flashlights in dark corners, The Purge initially seems to be heading towards a deus ex machina style ending, only to twist itself into a horrible knot combining so many themes and buzz words it feels in danger of going of the rails into ridiculously overbearing allegory. It’s saved however by a denouement that is powered by human fragility instead of ideology, one which is unrealistic yet still feels thematically resonant in light of all evil that has supposedly been “Purged” that night.
By the film’s conclusion it’s hard to say if The Purge really exercises anyone of his or her violent impulses, but we are reminded that there is another way of dealing with the beast within us. And that is to tame it rather then letting it consume us.