Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
June 2013

The Purge

Kill the poor

'The Purge' is a high-minded, but ultimately timid social satire masquerading as a horror film

The Purge
Universal Pictures
Director: James DeMonaco
Screenplay: James DeMonaco
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Max Burkholder, Adelaide Kane, Rhys Wakefield, Edwin Hodge and Tony Oller
Rated R / 1 hour, 25 minutes
Opened June 7, 2013
(out of four)

The Purge is both smarter and dumber than it seems.

On practical terms, its basic conceit is profoundly stupid; allegorically, though, it holds up a bit better. The central hook - that in a future America, all crime is legal for one night out of every year - rests on the notion that violent crime, on a societal level, is a result of pent-up rage and hatred, rather than economic and circumstantial variables.

But it's not long before we realize writer/director James DeMonaco isn't concerned just with the silly "what if?" scenario itself, but with the socioeconomic implications it presents. The Purge may not entirely work as a satire (for reasons I'll get to later), but it does have satirical ideas primarily in mind.

Its early scenes - starting with a montage of events from the previous year's Purge - demonstrate a severe divide between those who can survive it and those who can't. A man drives through an upper-class neighborhood on the night of the Purge in the year 2022, casually glancing at all the homes to whom he has sold their top-of-the-line home security systems, casually ignoring the radio commentary discussing the disproportionate effect the Purge has on the poor. The man - James Sandin (Ethan Hawke), loving husband and father of two - has the biggest house in the neighborhood, equipped with the best security money can buy, and he and his neighbors take comfort in the expectation that they'll survive the night. Which is, as some of them see it, their God-given right. For them, the annual Purge is not just a custom, but a noble obligation. Not just a right, but a duty. They deserve to not only survive it, but to take part in it if they so choose.

That pervasive sense of entitlement gets an eerie visage in the form of a gang of yuppie Purgers - donned in anonymous, grinning latex masks - who interrupt the Sandin family's attempt at a serene, uneventful Purge night. See, their target escaped their grasp, and he's since barricaded himself inside the Sandins' not-quite-impenetrable fortress of a home. This is all thanks to their youngest son, Charlie (Max Burkholder), who offered the man sanctuary after hearing his cries for help.

But the yuppies won't let him go without a fight. After all, he is their evening's entertainment. And more to the point, it is their right to kill him. The group's leader (Rhys Wakefield, in a terrifically diabolical performance), dressed in a blue blazer emblazoned with a prep-school crest, is the only one who unmasks. Even then, he's no less unsettling - his wide, phony smile a practical carbon copy of his former disguise - but is all good manners and charm as he demands the Sandins release the group's target - the "homeless pig" - or else suffer the consequences.

He patiently explains his (and his associates') plans for the captive (played by Edwin Hodge), and carefully explains why it is not only his moral right to kill the man but his patriotic duty. The lower levels of society are there, he argues, for the pleasure of the privileged. He even suggests, despite the very principle of the Purge itself, that the helpless and the homeless they kill have little to no right to fight back.

The Purge comes along at a time when the spate of mass shootings as well as tragedies like the Trayvon Martin killing have called into question the moral and ethical reasoning of our laws about guns and violence, from the discussion of enhanced background checks to the ongoing public referendum on Florida's sensationally absurd "Stand Your Ground" law. Logistically speaking, it's virtually impossible that the film was directly inspired by any specific recent events, but the parallels it draws - specific or not - are hard to miss. But DeMonaco's ambitions - 1) to draw attention to the severe class and race inequalities that affect American society via a broad, literal-minded dystopian idea; 2) to question our culture's moral justifications for violence - are also his undoing, and it brings us back to why the film is kinda dumb while attempting to be kinda smart.

The opening title cards tell us that in this future version of America, crime is at an all-time low of 1 percent and the economy is thriving - a fact that actually undermines DeMonaco's social comment because it goes right back to justifying the idea that violence is the a result of boiling-over rage, something easily cured by the "release" of killing someone. DeMonaco clearly knows that is a false idea and is trying to make that point, but the film's own internal logic requires the opposite to be true.

The fatal flaw, I think, was in simplifying the concept. Virtually the entirety of The Purge takes place in one location - the Sandins' home - and it revolves entirely around one family trying to survive an attack from a band of psychopaths. The societal issue the film wants to explore is reduced to the struggle of one family against people trying to murder them. The fact that Mr. Sandin is the one responsible for those aforementioned security systems and is thus emblematic of the class divide is smart, and it gives DeMonaco the opportunity to consolidate the message, but it doesn't really allow that message to breathe. It doesn't allow DeMonaco to explore the nuances of his own premise, and as a result it ends up self-contradictory and shallow.

Not to mention the inherent hypocrisy of a movie that criticizes a violent society while practically demanding that we root for murder the entire time. There is skill in the filmmaking here, but the one thing it never gets right is the moral tone. It's hard to take the commentary of a film seriously when its very attitude is communicating the opposite.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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