Note: The following essay contains spoilers for The Purge. You’ve been warned. Don’t yell at me.
Brace yourselves: there’s a good chance the most culturally important film of the year is now in theaters.
No, it’s not that movie from a few months ago with James Franco as a gangster-slash-alien who loves his shorts.
No, it’s not that one where Captain Kirk tries to drone strike Osama bin Laden.
Hell, it’s not even that documentary about America’s secret wars (though that could be a close second).
I’m talking about a little horror film that was made for $3 million called The Purge.
At first glance, The Purge is nothing special, as its current 41% rating on RottenTomatoes might suggest. Plot-wise, it’s a fairly standard home invasion thriller with a few weird bits of dystopian science fiction thrown in for variety. Amidst the stabbing and the shooting, however, lies a surprisingly radical piece of cultural commentary, a work of genre deconstruction that elevates its B-movie premise into a profoundly moral meta-critique of American violence. I’m not kidding. The Purge deserves to be listed alongside films like Straw Dogs and Funny Games—or, more recently, The Cabin in the Woods and Sinister—as an innovative exploration of the intersection between movie mayhem and real-life bloodshed.
The premise is ripe for satire: In the future, American citizens are given a 12-hour period every year called The Purge during which they’re free to commit any crime, including murder. As a result, crime during the rest of the year is virtually non-existent and unemployment is down to 1%. James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) has made a fortune designing in-home security systems for the wealthy to keep them safe during The Purge, so he thinks he has little to worry about—the poor and other “undesirables” are usually the ones being killed, anyway. But when his teenage son sees a stranger in the street yelling for help and decides to let him inside, he accidentally starts a chain reaction that soon has James questioning everything he once believed.
Those questions are at the heart of The Purge. At its core, the film is a morality play. Viewers looking for details on the history of The Purge and its supposed effects will likely be disappointed. The specifics don’t matter. The dystopian premise is developed only insofar as it allows writer-director James DeMonaco to explore violence in both its personal and institutional forms, and the decision to focus on a single home invasion is neither simple nor misguided—after all, the protection of the family unit is the most oft-cited legal justification for violence in real life. We shoot intruders in our homes in self-defense without fear of going to prison and go to war with other nations under the guise of “protecting” our loved ones from foreign threats. The Purge may be a fictional holiday, but the situation the Sandins find themselves in is not.
On its most basic level, The Purge is a heavy-handed allegory for how the rich prey on the poor and the values of conservative gun-toting America lead to further violence. Yes, the NFA (New Founders of America) is a stand-in for the NRA (National Rifle Association); their logos are very similar. Yes, the primary villain (named only Polite Stranger) is a wealthy white guy in a fraternity-crested jacket who wants to kill a homeless black man. Yes, the main character is also a rich douchebag. But that’s just the tip of DeMonaco’s satirical sword.
The opening credits establish that the film’s message is far broader than simply, “The Tea Party is ruining the country.” We’re introduced to The Purge through a series of seemingly real-life acts of violence caught on surveillance cameras, a montage of cruelty set to Debussy. The theme of surveillance plays a large role on the film—I’ll get to that later—but by beginning this way DeMonaco doesn’t just establish The Purge as rooted in real-life concerns about violence, he argues that it’s classical. Romantic, even. The juxtaposition of crime with Clair de lune is a striking reminder that violence is uniquely embedded in American culture as something natural and, at times, beautiful. After all, we are a country born out of revolution. Violence is in our cultural DNA.
The Purge is about more than Republican-versus-Democrat or conservative-versus-liberal; it’s about the moral-versus-immoral, and all the shades of gray in between. The script leads the Sandins (and, by extension, the audience) from one moral revelation to another. It’s a modern-day parable, a fantastic chain of events structured around a simple oft-forgotten truth: that which is justifiable is not always right.
DeMonaco starts with a fairly simple inquiry: Are we morally obligated to help those in need? James’ son Charlie sees a stranger running outside the house, begging for help. Gunshots can be heard in the distance. At this point, there is no direct threat to his family, only a potential one, yet James still disapproves. Allowing the man into his home forces him to confront the uncomfortable truth that those being killed—we’re led to believe it’s primarily the poor—are human beings, and they might not all be terrible people. But just as he meets the stranger, James is nearly killed by his own daughter’s boyfriend. It’s a surprising twist that indicates DeMonaco is already playing with our assumptions, reminding us that the Other isn’t always the one we need to fear.
The second moral quandary has more far-reaching implications: Is it morally right to sacrifice innocent lives to save others from a dangerous enemy? The strange man is safe inside, yet masked vigilantes demand the Sandins release him to be killed. The threat is no longer hypothetical. If they refuse, the intruders promise to break inside and murder the entire family—none of James’ security measures are foolproof. It’s here that the film is most overtly political. Their security threatened, James and Mary stab the man (in gruesome close-up) and tie him up. His dog tags dangle casually from around his neck, and we suddenly realize that this man is a veteran. A soldier. And what is The Purge if not legally-sanctioned terrorism?
At first, the Sandins want to give into the intruders’ demands and sacrifice his life for theirs. Eventually, he even volunteers! Sending him to die would be an entirely justifiable action, yet their daughter’s dead-eyed retort reveals its moral emptiness—“Look at what we’re doing.” Once again, the younger generation is the source of new moral insight. In mere minutes, The Purge transforms from simple home invasion film into a radical anti-war statement: Don’t send people away to die, even if the threat is real. Make the Enemy come to us.
DeMonaco doesn’t limit his critique of institutional violence to politics, however. He goes even further, linking political violence to ancient religious rites. We’re repeatedly told that The Purge acts as a national form of spiritual cleansing, that the sacrifice of innocents will lead to better lives for everyone else. The oft-repeated mantra “Release the beast” sounds vaguely satanic. It’s also no coincidence that The Purge occurs on March 21, the vernal equinox, a day of great religious significance. In modern Paganism it’s a holiday of rebirth and fertility, and in the Abrahamic traditions it was used to schedule both Easter and Passover. The former celebrates the resurrection of Christ from death, the final cleansing of sin after bloody crucifixion, and the latter remembers safety from God’s wrath. (This is also referenced in the film through blue flowers left outside the front door, a sign that that those inside believe in the righteousness of The Purge and should not be harmed).
The idea that violence is a positive spiritual act prevalent in most religions is one most films wouldn’t touch, but DeMonaco dives right in, recognizing that person-on-person violence has as much to do with institutionally sanctioned violence as it does with individual impulses. Attitudes about one affect the other—we do not live in a vacuum. And so, naturally, he also turns his camera on the other culturally dominant institution of our time: the media. How much do the images we see affect our attitudes towards violence?
According to The Purge, quite a lot. James spends most of the first act of the movie listening to the news. His belief in the moral rightness of The Purge is constantly reinforced. Even when someone on a panel—television’s false sign of objectivity—doesn’t endorse the Purge, they ultimately justify its existence. Protesters are briefly mentioned, but never allowed to speak. James takes what he sees onscreen as fact.
What we see affects what we believe. This is the driving theme behind The Purge, the idea from which everything else springs forth. If violence is politically, religiously, even cinematically endorsed, then we cannot help but be shaped by it. One of the dominant visual motifs of “The Purge” is that of looking—James peering outside through a narrow opening, Charlie viewing the world through his camera, the audience watching violence through a screen on top of a screen on top of a screen. As in the opening credits, the line between cinema and reality begins to fade. The two become indistinguishable.
By calling his inciting event (and his film) The Purge, DeMonaco isn’t just referring to the mass murder of innocent civilians, he’s rather blatantly connecting his film to the debate surrounding violence in entertainment that has raged for centuries. Specifically, he’s harkening all the way back to Aristotle’s arguments with Plato about the effects of tragic art on the population. Plato argued that art could cause people’s emotions to overcome their rationality, leading to an ethically damaged mindset. In “The Republic,” he writes:
“When even the best of us hear Homer or any other of the tragic poets imitating one of the heroes in mourning… we enjoy it and that we give ourselves over to following the imitation; suffering along with the hero in all seriousness, we praise as a good poet the man who most puts us in this state.”
In other words, we view the best artists as those who impact us emotionally, so we begin to associate feelings like sadness and fear with enjoyment. Plato saw this confluence of pleasure and pathos as psychologically harmful—over time, he feared we may become desensitized to true sorrow. Aristotle, on the other hand, viewed tragic art as something that could help keep people psychologically balanced and offer them a way to “purge” themselves of negative impulses. After listening to tragic music or viewing a tragic play, people would feel relieved and no longer burdened by their baser emotions. In “Politics,” he writes:
“Those who are subject to the emotions of pity and fear… will necessarily be affected in the same way; and so will other men in exact proportion to their susceptibility to such emotions. All experience a certain purge [catharsis] and pleasant relief.”
There’s still scholarly debate surrounding Aristotle’s definition of “catharsis,” but it originates from the Greek katharsis, meaning “purification.” The Purge is filled to the brim with Aristotelian language, with the murderers constantly justifying their actions with words like “purification” and “cleansing.” This isn’t just a commentary on socio-political and economic violence, it’s a critique of anything that presents violence as redemptive, including the big screen. This is a movie about movies, and as such it’s peppered with references to modern cinema, from the masked invaders of The Strangers to the iconic antihero of the Terminator films. In one overtly satirical moment, James even suggests the family spend the evening of The Purge watching a movie. One form of catharsis is replaced with another.
(As a side note, DeMonaco’s endorsement of a more Platonic view of art and emotion is possibly why he refuses to show any crime other than murder onscreen. Though he alludes to the potential for sexual assault, it thankfully never occurs. Rape is already an unnecessary crutch in many horror films, so why allow the audience the “thrill” of watching something so horrifying if seeing may have more lasting effects than mere catharsis?)
But DeMonaco doesn’t stop there. He not only layers the content of his film with subtext—by naming the protagonist after himself, for instance–he also allows theme to drive his craft, structuring the carnage in a way that constantly undermines the audience’s enjoyment. Many critics have complained that The Purge encourages viewers to cheer when the villains get their comeuppance, but DeMonaco’s treatment of violence is actually closer in spirit to that of Michael Haneke in Funny Games, allowing moments of Aristotelian catharsis before confronting viewers with their own bloodlust.
For example, one key sequence finds James heroically vowing to fight back, exclaiming, “This is our house!” It’s his hero line, his “Yippee Kai-Yay, motherfucker!” or “Get off my plane!” For a few minutes, he’s the embodiment of Wayne LaPierre’s sentiment that, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” sneaking around the house and stealthily blasting bad guys with his shotgun. In the film’s most thrilling scene, he miraculously fights off a few more in the billiards room. The scene is meticulously edited to raise suspense as high as it will go, with James only barely managing to overpower his captors at the last possible moment. It’s then, at the height of his triumph, that he strides confident towards the next room…
… and straight into a machete.
The fantasy of the American Everyman valiantly defending his home from evil-doers with his trusty sidearm is suddenly deflated. Despite having several moral epiphanies, the kind of which would normally serve as a traditional full-fledged arc, the main character dies. DeMonaco repeats this emotional whiplash minutes later, when Mary and her children are rescued at the last minute by their neighbors, only to discover that they’ll die at the hands of their supposed saviors. The story beats we’ve come to expect from films like this are tossed aside in favor of a more realistic portrayal of violence. There are no heroes here, only survivors.
The climactic scene is the most radical of all. In a moment of stunningly subversive politics, the unnamed black veteran saves Mary and her children but doesn’t murder their victimizers. He refuses to fight the Sandins’ battles for them, and instead hands the gun to Mary to do with as she chooses. In ninety-nine percent of movies, she would gun them down. Their deaths would be presented not only as justified, but as morally righteous. After all, they’re in her home! They nearly killed her children! Forget about The Purge, this would be legal and culturally acceptable no matter what!
But she doesn’t. The film’s ultimate message comes down to three simple words: “No more killing.” Violence in The Purge is never heroic, never morally right, even when it’s arguably justified. It’s just violence, and it’s always horrific.
No more killing. It’s a simple refrain, yet American life (and the majority of cinema) suggests it’s a naïve ideal we can never achieve. The Purge attempts to take a stand, arguing that individual refusals to kill might eventually spill over into the institutional, and in doing so it becomes the most important narrative film so far this year. Like Funny Games and The Cabin in the Woods, it challenges common modern-day perceptions about violence in entertainment and links real-life atrocity to historical and institutional forces, including cinema itself. How can we stop the violence? DeMonaco is cynical but not hopeless, daring to suggest that seeing is believing and then showing us something normally not seen in mainstream Hollywood movies: grace.