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The Purge: More than a Home Invasion Horror Movie
The Purge is a horror movie set in America in 2022. A never quite explained governmental change has occurred, as the newscasters constantly refer to the New Founding Fathers. Unemployment is at an all time low and so is crime. Part of this change is because of the Purge: one night a year where all crime is legal. Even though most people support it, there are some who say the Purge only benefits the rich. They can protect themselves from the mayhem that roams the streets for the twelve hours of the Purge, when all emergency services are suspended and anything goes.
James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) is a home security salesman who specializes in helping the people who can afford it protect their families during the Purge. He’s very successful at his job, and this year he’s the top saleman, though he tells others after mentioning it that it was a “team win.” The f unny thing is, when you get to know him a little bit, you realize he’s not being disingenuous, he really means that, which makes you like him all the more. His wife Mary (Lena Headey) is also proud of his success, even though she has to bear passive-aggressive comments from some neighbors about how the “neighborhood bought them the addition they just had put on the house.” For all the ways the Sandin family fits into the neighborhood, (they’re respectable, affluent if not downright wealthy,) they’re still somewhat isolated from it because of their recent success. They’re not invited to neighbor Grace’s Purge party despite James selling her the system. That undercurrent of resentment and jealousy is an important factor in what happens during the rest of the film, though audiences probably won’t realize it until later on.
James and Mary have two children, a daughter named Zoey and a son named Charlie. Zoey has a boyfriend her parents have forbidden her to see because he’s too old for her (which of course makes her love him more.) Charlie is more withdrawn, using his creepy robot, a burned doll torso atop a tank, to interact with the family. He’s kind of creepy but still genuinely likeable.
All the Sandins are likeable, if a little bit boring. Zoey’s got a little more spice, but she’s young and beautiful and the audience can see the mistake she’s making with her boyfriend even if she can’t. This is obviously an attempt by director James DeMonaco to portray them as the Usual American Family, if a bit wealthier, and get the audience to connect with them, which will make the awful things that happen later all the more horrifying.
The hour of the Purge comes, and James locks down the house with his company’s top-of-the-line system, believing that he and his family will be safe behind their steel walls. And they might’ve passed the night peacefully, except that Charlie, in a moment of pity, let in a bloody stranger who was trying to hide from his attackers. The ‘hunters’ show up a little later and demand that James force the stranger out of his house and into their not-so-tender-care. Things go bad when James finally decides not to send the man out into the night, essentially signing a death sentence for his family to protect a stranger. It takes him a good long while to decide this, partially because the stranger (who never gets a name) doesn’t exactly do things that make him look like a good guy, though you can’t really call him a villain, because he’s just trying to survive the night.
What interested me about this is that by the rules of his society, James could just turn this man out and not feel bad about it at all. The Purge is the ultimate night about being a survivor, and if this man can’t escape his enemies then they can kill him without pity. Because it’s legal. But the problem here is the difference between what’s legal and what feels right. I won’t say what’s moral, because there are no morals on the night of the Purge, it’s kill or be killed. Despite what his society tells him, James decides, after a while, to refuse the hunters demands and let the man stay inside the house.
The hunters don’t take this rejection lying down. They wait for their ‘equipment’ to arrive and break into the house, intent now on killing not just their target but the entire Sandin family.
There are plenty of House Invasion Horror standards here: the masks, the weird behavior, the overly-polite way the main hunter has of talking, this is all things we’ve seen before. Even the stalking scenes are fairly generic if sometimes nerve wracking to watch.
I must say that Rhys Wakefield, who plays The Polite Stranger would be a really good casting choice for the Joker from Batman, if they ever decide to touch that character again in movies. It wasn’t the mask or the odd way he talked that made him frightening, it was his expressions and the way he bought into the language of the Purge, calling his murders “sacrifices” and saying how “death would cleanse the souls of his victims.”
What sets The Purge above the usual mindless murder movie is its social commentary. There’s undercurrents of class war, entitlement and the American obsession with violence running all through the film. Ethan Hawke, during interviews about The Purge calls it a “Violent Anti-Violence Movie” and I tend to agree with him. This isn’t a film about glorifying violent actions or condoning them, it comes down clearly on the side of restraint and maybe even kindness. The Sandin family doesn’t turn into a pack of vicious killers once the hunters invade their home, when caught, they cry for mercy and try to avoid being stabbed, slashed or punctured as best they can. They act exactly like the audience imagines the victims of the Purge are acting in the streets all over America at that very moment.
I liked The Purge a lot more than I thought I would, because it’s more than just an excuse for violence. But if you want to ignore the undercurrents of social commentary and revel in violence there’s plenty to keep you occupied, though you’re sort of missing the point. It reminded me of the Edgar Allan Poe story The Masque of the Red Death, because the Sandin family thinks their walls can keep them safe, and they end up finding out just how wrong they are.