Murder, Mayhem and The New Social Order: The Triumph of Violence in The Purge
When our original Founding Fathers first set these words to paper, they strove to ‘establish Justice’, ‘insure domestic Tranquility’ and ‘promote the general Welfare.’ Today, the world is a much different place, but the New Founders of America battle for the very same American ideals and refuse to let them fade.
Much like the Patriots of old, followers of the NFA recognize that big problems require big solutions. The same complacent thinking that dragged America into an era of poverty, violence, and crime will not fix our nation. This is why the NFA established The Purge, the night that saved our country.
By recognizing the inherently violent nature of mankind, the NFA has succeeded in creating a lawful, healthy outlet for American outrage. We pride ourselves on being the only party that will never ask you to deny your true self.
We, the New Founders of America, revived our great nation with policies rooted in evolutionary truths of humanity. We are by design violent, vengeful and combative, and denial of our true selves is what led us to collapse. By accepting this and empowering you, the citizens, to purge and cleanse your souls, we’ve rebuilt America as the safe and prosperous union our Old Founding Fathers envisioned.
America is only as strong as our weakest individual. We continue to defend the individual’s rights to personal security, including the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms set forth by our original founders and the 28th Amendment right to purge.
These constitutional freedoms of self-defense have shaped a new era for America, a nation reborn. We are now a stronger and more peaceful union than our Old Founding Fathers could ever have dreamed.
Since its inception, The Purge has been backed by scientists, law enforcement and economists alike. With your support and vigilance, the NFA can continue making America a ‘more perfect Union.’ Blessed be the New Founders. And blessed be America, a Nation Reborn!” (From the New Founders of America Manifesto)
As H. Rap Brown once famously observed, “violence is as American as cherry pie,” and James DeMonaco’s The Purge (2013) offers ample proof of this fact. The fictive but all too believable manifesto quoted above is part of an elaborate web site for the film, but the seriousness of its text cannot be denied. You want to take it simply as a thriller – fine. But there’s much more on offer here than genre filmmaking. The Purge is seriously thought out, precise in its inverted logic, and taps in neatly to the current trends of endless outbursts of violence, grotesque displays of consumption, and the stratification of society as a whole.
DeMonaco, who previously helmed the indifferent remake of John Carpenter’s superb 1976 thriller Assault on Precinct 13 (2005), here returns to much the same story, but with considerably greater success: a group of people are holed up in an insolated location, giving shelter to a complete stranger, while a band of well armed, murderous hooligans tries to break in and kill everyone. This is his breakthrough film, and he squeezes every last drop of irony and withering social criticism out of it.
Howard Hawks used this narrative framework in many of his films, such as Rio Bravo (1959), El Dorado (1966) and The Thing from Another World (1951, credited to Christian Nyby, but actually directed by Hawks), and as a dedicated Hawks fan, Carpenter had no problems in lifting this basic premise for Precinct 13, and indeed, returned to it again in his brilliant remake of Hawks’ The Thing in 1982. And, of course, there’s always George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), also centering on a group of disparate individuals holed up in an isolated house trying to survive an onslaught of zombies, an idea that has now been recycled, literally, to death.
But here, as the director, writer and co-producer of The Purge, DeMonaco gives this old narrative line an interesting dystopian twist: it’s 2022, and unemployment and crime are at an all-time low, thanks to The Purge, a twelve hour period of rampant lawlessness in which any crime, including murder, can be committed with impunity, as part of a government sanctioned program to keep the masses pacified.
Now ruled by the so-called New Founding Fathers of America, America has become a dark, uncompromising world of the haves and have-nots, with no middle ground in-between, in which the poor live in constant fear of those with money and power. Once a year, for twelve full hours, there will be no hospitals, no police, no emergency assistance – just wholesale slaughter of the poor, minorities, and “misfits” of any kind. The poor, in short, are fair game.
There’s more; the very, very rich have risen far above the poor, as in real life in America in 2013 – 2022 isn’t really that far off, is it? – and people who live in gated communities are able to purchase elaborate home defense systems, while the poor, elderly, and ill haven’t got a chance of survival under this new regime – they’re targeted as being among the very first to be eliminated.
Of course, The Purge is also an excellent time to settle old scores and long-standing grudges against one’s neighbors for any number of reasons – a theme also explored here to excellent effect – and even the most mild-mannered suburbanite is seen as being enthusiastically capable of all sorts of mayhem.
The film, clocking in at a compact 85 minutes, opens with television surveillance footage of past Purges, smoothly scored to Debussy, but soon centers on one James Sandin (Ethan Hawke), a shallow, upwardly mobile salesman of the alarm systems the rich so desperately embrace. It’s the eve of the annual Purge, set to start in roughly an hour. And this is a special night for James Sandin; he’s sold more home protection systems than any other of the salespersons in his company, and is thus in line for a considerable bonus.
Returning home from work, James plans to lock himself and his family in for the night, have some pizza and salad, and watch the violence unfold on television in network and cable news coverage, emerging the next morning unscathed and considerably richer. Indeed, he’s already got his eye on a huge yacht for the family – it even has room for an automobile in its hold – and muses to his wife Mary that “ten years ago we couldn’t even pay rent – now look at us. It’s crazy.”
Sandin’s family live in a Yuppiesque McMansion in a perfectly manicured, conspicuously wealthy “community,” where everything is serene, and no one causes any trouble. His is “the good life,” full of material comforts, well insulated from the 99% who are starving in the streets not far away, living in a slum world of unremitting brutality and violence. But for James Sandin and his family, life is sweet.
There’s his rather clueless and pampered wife Mary (Lena Headley), content for the most part to putter around the well-appointed kitchen of their luxury home; their precocious techie son Charlie (Max Burkholder), who at roughly ten years of age doesn’t fully understand the implications of The Purge, but still retains more of a moral sensibility than all the rest of the family combined; and their daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane), a predictably spoiled teenager who thinks she is in love with archetypal bad boy Henry (Tony Oller), who is a few years older than Zoey.
Yet there are tensions already simmering around the family. They’ve just put an entire new addition on to the house, and the neighbors are obviously jealous; James seems entirely too smug in his material success, and is clearly riding for a fall; and James also doesn’t approve of Henry’s attentions to his daughter, and is determined to break the couple up, much to Henry’s chagrin.
As 7PM rolls around, and the official announcement of the start of The Purge is broadcast on television, the family gathers together for what they assume will essentially be a night of “reality” television; live feeds from the various surveillance cameras strategically positioned around their house, as well as cable and network news reports of violence throughout the United States, which they view as a spectator sport.
But as the curfew is announced, young Charlie is monitoring the family’s home surveillance system through its closed circuit cameras, and sees a lone man (Edwin Hodge, identified only as the “Bloody Stranger” in the film’s credits) running desperately through the well-manicured streets outside, pleading for help. Charlie can’t help himself; despite all his father’s warnings to the contrary, he still cares. Impulsively, Charlie hits the deactivation button on the security system and lets the stranger in.
James, enraged, manages to hold the interloper at gunpoint, since no one can be trusted on this night of nights. We notice that the bloodied man is wearing military dog tags; without too much effort, we can quickly sketch in his background. He’s a veteran down on his luck, marginalized because he’s both poor and African-American, and tonight, the “1%” are determined to eliminate him. Thus, our sympathies are entirely with the stranger, while the dispassionate, self-absorbed James becomes more repellent with every passing frame.
Meanwhile, ne’er do well Henry has been making out upstairs with Zoey, but instead of going home to his own family fortress for a night of enforced lockdown, he surreptitiously stays behind, with but one objective – to kill James for interfering in his romance with Zoey. As James continues to hold a gun on the intruder, Henry calmly walks down the stairs to the front room of the Sandin home, pulls out a gun, and without any preamble whatsoever, shoots James at point blank range.
But James is quicker on the draw, and kills Henry with a single well-placed bullet, escaping injury himself. Zoey, understandably, is distraught, but the rules of the game are clear; any crime is fair game for the next twelve hours, and Henry’s attempt on James called for straightforward self-defense. During the commotion, the Bloody Stranger has vanished into the recesses of the house; James will have to find him, and turn him back out into the street.
Suddenly, the doorbell rings. Through the peep hole, James sees a blond, smirking, preppy young man (Rhys Wakefield, giving perhaps the best performance in the film, identified only as “the Polite Stranger” in the credits), complete with school tie and jacket, demanding that James give them the stranger as a sacrificial offering for The Purge. Otherwise, the young man and his friends will break in and kill everyone without mercy.
Mouthing empty phrases with smooth, Ayn Randian neo-conservative detachment, the young man describes the anonymous man seeking shelter as a non-productive parasite who must be eliminated for the greater good of the society as a whole – it’s what The Purge is for. Shockingly, James readily agrees with this. He supports The Purge wholeheartedly, and says so. After all, it has made him a wealthy man.
Given a deadline of roughly fifteen minutes by the Polite Stranger, James promises to round up the Bloody Stranger, deliver him to the mob, and thus save his family. To ratchet up the tension, the Polite Stranger then instructs his associates to cut the power lines to house, plunging the entire interior of the Sandin home into darkness, save for a small backup generator that keeps just some of the surveillance cameras running, and the family’s own handheld flashlights.
Now comes another shock – James admits to his wife that if the interlopers outside really want to get in, they can; the home defense system James has been so highly touting isn’t really impregnable, but rather simply gives the appearance of being so – in short, it’s mostly for show, and at any rate, James feels safe in his neighborhood, which is yet another illusion.
It’s at this point that both the battle lines within this film, and comparisons to other films, books and short stories become clear; we’re not only in Hawks territory, but also in the world of Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale (2000), Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” (1948), William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies (1954), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000 (1975), and George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, to name just a few possible reference points. As the film’s fictive manifesto notes on its website,
“We are pleased to report that, for the fifth consecutive year, violent and nonviolent crime rates have fallen nationwide, thanks to the NFA and, most importantly, you. Ever since the ratification of the 28th Amendment in 2017 [the right to Purge] the people of our fine country have taken action every year to secure their communities by embracing their constitutional right to purge.
Research by the New Founders Institute of Justice (NFIJ) shows that in the past year alone, murder rates have fallen 20.2%, forcible rape by 16.5% and aggravated assault by 9.2%. We’re now seeing the impact of The Purge extend even further into property crime. Since The Purge of 2021, burglary is down by 5.3%, arson by 21.9% and auto theft by a staggering 45.5%. However, NFIJ warns that without the annual Purge, crime rates would return to the frightening highs we saw in 2016 in as few as three years.
Continued cooperation of law abiding Americans is crucial to sustaining domestic security, but based on the NFA’s 91% approval rate and the public’s 88% support of the 28th Amendment, we are confident the effects of The Purge will be enjoyed by generations to come.” (New Founders of America Website)
This kill or be killed, battle to the death concept has become increasingly popular in contemporary videogames and horror / science-fiction narratives such as The Hunger Games trilogy, and reflects the increasing stratification between the very wealthy and the very poor, with no middle ground in-between.
With the Bloody Stranger hiding in the house, and the smooth-talking yuppie at the front door escalating his threats, James convinces Mary that they must find the man, tie him up with duct tape, and shove him out the front door to certain death. But it takes some time to locate him, in large part because young Charlie continues to assist the man in finding secret hiding places within the house.
At length the stranger is discovered and subdued, but the yuppie and his cohorts, all clad in smiling Halloween masks of plastic Aryan “perfection,” decide they’ve had enough, and smash in the doors to the house with frightening ease; just as James predicted, the security system is no real deterrent.
It’s here that the film begins another set of surprising twists; while James and his family initially fall prey to the usual horror movie home invasion tropes such as “you stay here while I go and get help” – a strategy that never works – when the final confrontation with the intruders comes, it is James, shallow, cowardly and self-interested, who takes the most punishment.
Stabbed in the chest with a huge Bowie knife in a surprise attack by the Polite Stranger, James falls to the ground seriously wounded, even as Zoey, at last showing some initiative, blasts the Polite Stranger to death with a gun, while the rest of the yuppie band continues their pursuit of Mary and Charlie throughout the house.
James is moved into the living room, bleeding copiously – we never really find out if he’s dead or alive at the end of the film, although there are marginal hints that he may survive. But whatever happens, he’s out of the game; only Mary, Charlie and Zoey are still in play.
As the film enters its final minutes, it seems that Mary, Charlie and Zoey will surely perish, but at the last possible moment, the next-door neighbors intervene, guns blazing, and the remaining yuppie thugs perish in a hail of gunfire.
Mary starts to thank her “friends,” led by the saccharine sweet Grace Ferrin (Arija Bareikis, in another standout performance), but Grace reveals that they only saved the family so that they could kill them; the Sandins’ ostentatious style of living has alienated and enraged them all.
But just as it seems that the entire family will be butchered Manson-style, the Bloody Stranger emerges from the shadows, gun in hand, and forces Grace and her friends to drop their weapons, shooting one of Grace’s group to death in the process. The Bloody Stranger then offers Mary a choice – “your call,” as he puts it. Should he kill the rest of the neighbors, or let them live?
Repulsed by the unremitting cycle of violence and bloodshed, Mary decides to spare Grace and her friends, holding them at gunpoint with the help of the Stranger until 7AM, when The Purge ends. But bloodlust runs deep; even with a gun being held on her, Grace makes one last attempt to kill Mary minutes before the sirens sound the “all clear.” Mary smashes Grace in the mouth with the butt of her rifle, and then tells them all to “get out of my house.”
The Bloody Stranger, his mission – sheer survival – accomplished, also departs without a word, leaving the Sandins in the doorway of their wrecked home, as the credits roll over audio of television commentators raving about the “success” of The Purge on the soundtrack, “especially in Texas.” And thus, on this note of complete alienation, the film ends.
Made for a mere $3 million – it looks like a lot more – The Purge has been a surprise success at the box-office, taking in $58.5 million worldwide as of June 17, 2013, with the returns still coming in. Interestingly, while audiences have obviously embraced the film, The Purge has largely been panned by most critics, who, while conceding that the central premise of the film has some originality, fault the film’s execution, dismissing it as yet another home invasion film in the tradition of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997; remade by Haneke in 2007), but I feel it has much more resonance than that.
The film is not without faults; it’s a genre piece, and it knows it, made on a budget. Yet the first third of the film is, to my mind, economical and nearly flawless, building up the suspense with clear and concise exposition, effectively evoking the ultra-paranoid world in which the characters are forced to live, spouting jingoistic jargon about the numerous “benefits” of The Purge, capped by the appearance of the malevolent Polite Stranger, upping the stakes for what’s to come.
In contrast, the middle third is considerably less successful, with the family members creeping around the darkened house, flashlights in hand, trying to either escape from or kill their pursuers. Here the film often sinks in tired clichés, as if DeMonaco doesn’t really know how to effectively develop the situation beyond the standard variations within the genre once he’s set it up, and my interest began to waver.
But the final twenty minutes of the film, in which the yuppies attack the family as if the entire affair is some sort of ghastly game, and the neighbors turn out to be just as bloodthirsty, is quite remarkable. The stunt work and action scenes are handled with skill and effectiveness, but what’s most impressive to me is DeMonaco’s assuredly bleak presentation of suburban life as a living hell. You have no friends, there’s no one you can trust. Everyone hates you, or envies you. Everyone secretly wishes they could murder you, and get away with it, and now, thanks to The Purge, they can.
In the opening minutes of the film, Grace offers Mary a plate of homemade cookies right before “lockdown” as a supposed gesture of friendship, but one can see the sheer hatred in her eyes simmering just below the surface. It seems that Grace has always thrown a “Purge” party in years past, inviting the Sandins and their other neighbors to join them for a night of vicarious violence, as they watch the Purge unfold on television.
This year, Grace tells Mary, they’ve decided it was “too much bother,” but this simply isn’t true. In actuality, as James’ surveillance cameras document during the opening minutes of the film, the Sandins’ neighbors gather at Grace’s house with nothing but murder in the hearts, hoping to get a chance to kill the family they profess to admire.
As far as they’re concerned, James has capitalized on their fears to sell his home protection systems, making a fortune in the process, and then boasting about it. And then, of course, there’s also this – the systems that James sells are, by his own admission, essentially worthless. There’s really no protection at all.
In the end, The Purge distinguishes itself as an effective piece of pop socio-political commentary that doesn’t really push its message, or try to oversell it. It wants to be a thriller, and it hits all the bases with professional ease in that department, but it’s not really interested in violence for its own sake, or in amping up the gore to please diehard splatter fans. Instead, The Purge makes the mundane seem utterly terrifying, and sketches an all too realistic vision of the stop-at-nothing consumerism that drives American culture.
One of the most memorable images of the film remains the cheerfully psychotic stranger at the door – the true “American Psycho” – seemingly reasonable and “polite,” but promising to kill both you and your entire family if you don’t uphold the “class code” of The Purge, appealing to your shared embrace of hyper-capitalism as a justification for murder.
And there’s this at end; among the voices praising the effectiveness of The Purge, there is a lone dissent; a plain spoken father who states simply “I lost both my sons last night – for me, America is dead.” We’re not too far from that now, in a world of synthetic relationships, success at any price, and contempt for those who don’t participate.
These people aren’t part of our crowd. Can’t we just get rid of them?
Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Editor in Chief, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video. His newest books are Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access (University of Kentucky Press, 2013); Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (Rutgers University Press, 2012); 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2011); A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010; reprinted in 2011), Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (Edinburgh University Press/Rutgers University Press, 2009), and A Short History of Film (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2008; reprinted 6 times through 2012, with a new edition in 2013). His website, Frame by Frame, can be found here and a series of videos by Dixon on film history, theory and criticism, also titled Frame by Frame, can be found here.