Director: James DeMonaco
Writer: James DeMonaco
Recommended? you could do worse
Bechdel Test: Pass
I saw a trailer for this film awhile back, long before I convinced myself to watch it. In the year 2022 unemployment, poverty, and crime are at record lows—all because for one night a year, from 7pm to 7am, every crime is legal. (And by “every crime” the filmmakers really just mean murder.)
I’m an anarchist. My entire political understanding is wrapped up in the idea that without law and government, we’d actually all get along alright. I wasn’t expecting to like The Purge.
But the filmmakers actually took the themes of the movie in interesting directions.
First of all, let’s talk about class war. The protagonists are bootstrapping war-profiteers, basically: the husband sells security systems to rich people for the Purge. “Ten years ago we couldn’t pay our bills, and now we’re thinking about buying a boat,” he says at some point early in the film. The family puts out a symbolic display of blue flowers, showing their support for the Purge, before retreating into their secure home.
But it’s borderline heavy-handed how the movie points out how messed up the system is, how the rich are insulated from crime while the poor are not. It goes on at length that essentially the Purge exists to kill the “non-contributing” members of society: the sick, the old, the poor, the homeless.
The whole film, a reasonably entertaining thriller, is essentially a liberal parable. The rich family stays insulated from harm until the youngest child sees a man crying out for help in the streets and lets the man in. In turn, a gang of overly-educated prep students show up and lay siege to the house, demanding that the family turns over the injured man (a homeless black veteran) or they will break into the house and kill everyone.
So the individualistic (“republican”) dad decides to turn over the injured man to the mob to save his family, but the rest of his family (“democrat”) turns on the dad for daring to be so inhuman. Hijinks (okay, chaos and death) ensue.
Maybe my favorite scene in the movie is when the father is explaining how the security systems he sells aren’t foolproof. He points out that the security systems are really just there to look intimidating, to make people search out easier prey. But that there is no impenetrable security system. If you take this statements at face value, all of these things are of course true, but in the context of the film it feels like a veiled reference to the vulnerability of the apparatus that protects the state. (At another point, one of the rich psychopaths, who feels that hunting poor people is his right as an American, complains about the poor person having the audacity to fight back.)
Oh, and early on, in the background, a man on the radio is saying he’s planning on going out to kill his boss.
But if there’s an overt theme of class war throughout the film, it really is terribly liberal. The movie entirely misunderstands the nature of the capitalist economy. People in the film talk about how prosperous society has become now that the poor have essentially all been murdered. In real life, the rich aren’t rich because they work hard or because they’re lucky, but because they exploit the labor of others. There are people who work for a living (the working class) and those who hire people at a wage and extract their excess value (the rich). If all the poor people die, the rich will become poor rather quickly.
There’s plenty of good liberal “I don’t want your blood on my hands but I don’t actually give two shits about you” attitude in the movie as well. The wounded homeless vet isn’t even named, and certainly isn’t developed as a character.
The whole central thematic axis is around “helping other people is a major sacrifice, so despite selfishness being in your best interest, maybe you should help people” which is of course the way that society likes to view altruism. Instead, it is both my lived experience and a core element of my political understanding that helping other people can, more often than not, help us all empower one another.
And of course, the movie’s focus on “all crime is legal” meaning “murder is legal” is rather telling too. When the rule of law is suspended (in a disaster or a prolonged riot), people don’t actually run around killing one another very often. They loot. While some wealthy gangs like the one in the film might run off and hunt poor people, I’d suspect the vast majority of Purgers would realize that saving up all year for a new TV is for suckers when you can just smash and grab it on Purge night (or buy it at a massive discount from a looter the next day).
The movie also misconstrues the nature of police and government. First of all, it implies that the government is necessary to keep poor people safe. This is laughable… government and its attendant police exist to do the exact opposite. And while government security forces (that is to say, police) aren’t on call during the Purge, I’m certain rich people (and stores!) would hire armed guards. The violence happening in the streets wouldn’t be some sort of animal-nature-we-need-to-kill-one-another thing, the violence would be an escalated version of what is always there—people trying to get what’s locked up and people trying to stop them.
The theme of human nature is discussed in the film too, of course. In the world of the film, there is a ton of propaganda from scientists and talking heads that all says we need to act out violently, that it’s part of our animal nature. (To reinforce the point, a homicidal boyfriend says to his girlfriend something like “instead of saying ‘I love you,’ let’s growl at one another. That’s how we’ll express ‘I love you’ to one another.”)
But over the course of the film, this propaganda is revealed as just that. And those who spout it off are shown in a pretty negative light. Which I’m alright with!
Oh, and the “keeping up with the Joneses” crazy murderers in the movie are a pretty good touch.
Class: the whole movie is about class.
Race: The homeless man is black and is of course selfless. In fact he is so noble that he saves the entire family, then lets the mother decide what he should do, (this is the same mother who literally tortured him a few hours earlier), basically standing around as her guard dog.
The other people of color just show up tangentially with no lines.
Gender: I was impressed that I made it almost all the way through the movie before a man discussed raping a woman. Almost all the way through. At least it wasn’t explicit and wasn’t threatened towards the woman in question, I suppose. Also, naturally, the only person who manages to save themselves (rather than just be saved) during a fight is the dad, who turns out to be really badass (who would have thought! Average American Dad is secretly badass! Never woulda expected that to happen in a movie.).
For better or worse, I also feel like there’s something gendered in how it’s the dad who dies and the wife who just wants to see no one get killed anymore.
Still, there are strong women characters. But I’m not sure why the psychopath gang women all have the bladed weapons and the men all have the guns.