“The Purge” is a Late-Capitalist Fever Dream

“I know bad things do happen tonight,” Ethan Hawke’s character tells his son in The Purge. “But we can afford protection, so we’ll be fine, just like always.”

These are words you should never speak aloud if you are unlucky enough to find yourself in a horror movie, though the Purge franchise—whose third installment, The Purge: Election Year, debuted in theaters this month—often seems less like a horror movie than a late-capitalist fever dream. As with any halfway effective film of its kind, the premise of the series is deceptively simple: All crime, including murder, is legal for one night a year. This initiative was sold to Americans by the “New Founding Fathers,” whose rise to power is left a mystery in the first and second films.

The reticence on the part of writer and director James DeMonaco to explain the world he has created seems both wise—no suspenseful scene was ever tautened by exposition—and regrettable. How, we are left to wonder, did it come to this? The characters in The Purge don’t live in a dystopia whose bleakness is only relieved by violence—on every other night of the year, things are peaceful and prosperous in DeMonaco’s America—and it doesn’t seem as if the Purge has rescued them from one. The first installment in the Purge series is set in 2022, and at this point, people who were well into adulthood when the Purge was adopted as national policy in 2018 embrace it with wide-eyed acceptance. Really? Americans can never wholly agree on adopting any national program, even those that are extremely mundane and without life-and-death consequences, to say nothing of widespread slaughter. Doesn’t anyone remember the colossal failure of the attempted adoption of the metric system?

The film’s tagline suggests a Trump-inspired dystopia.

More than anything, the Purge series’s premise—or lack of premise—suggests a worldview in which people actually do what their government tells them, cheerfully adopting not just habits and holidays but social norms. In The Purge, American culture is violent, but it is also, by definition, malleable. The Purge is a night of bloodshed, but it’s also apparently the core of a new national philosophy, a kind of gory, secular religion. “We saw an opportunity to cleanse ourselves of our hatred,” a purger tells their would-be victims in the first movie. “We’ll be better people, and you’ll have sacrificed yourselves to make the world a better place.”

Within the franchise’s fictional media landscape, the Purge is sold as an outlet for “American rage.” This sense of self-awareness is at the center of the franchise’s premise: Americans are given the chance to lawfully destroy each other, and they take it, recognizing that there is violence within them and they need a way to expel it. What The Purge never quite seems to consider is the fact that those who carry out the most destruction in contemporary society—the juror, the general, the drone pilot, the police officer—are those who would be the least likely to describe their natures as violent. What The Purge never depicts is the violence we inflict even as we tell ourselves that we are only maintaining order. But that kind of movie could never confine its events to one dark night.

Don’t worry, Ethan Hawke, everything will be just fine in this horror film.

In the first installment of the Purge franchise, which takes place in a ritzy gated community—and where, spoiler alert, Ethan Hawke and his family are not “fine, just like always”—we watch privileged, law-abiding Americans revel in the chance to “purge” their violent impulses, often, it appears, by taking them out on the poor. For all its willingness to serve the viewer generous dollops of violence, noise, and terror, The Purge is oddly lacking in energy: It has, for example, none of the strange vitality of such late-night classics of urban dystopia as 1979’s The Warriors or 1981’s Escape from New York. In these movies, we saw the perspective of the nation’s most unwanted citizens as they battled against impossible odds and took on assailants who came after them not because the government told them to, but because violence was the only human response to the world they lived in.

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The Purge: Election Year seems to be taking a cue from the transcendent success of last summer’s Mad Max: Fury Road. In both movies, a nonverbal man with a chip on his shoulder helps shepherd to safety a woman who is determined to save society from itself. What Election Year fails to match is Fury Road’s blasting energy and its blunt, tender feminism. Few films could. It doesn’t seem all that risky, however, to predict that The Purge: Election Year will make a great deal of money. Since opening July 1, it has already made about $90 million (its budget was $10 million).

The feral, irradiated outback Fury Road depicts is vastly different from the top-down dystopia the Purge franchise depicts, but movies always manage to make money if they allow us to countenance our fears. These days, Americans have enough anxieties to buoy a dozen summer releases to blockbuster status.

Creepy Purgers from the franchise’s first film.

The heroes of the Purge franchise are always the abstainers: those who find a way not just to avoid their country’s newfound tradition but to actively thwart it. These characters are always in danger but are never forced to lash out for any reason other than self-defense—which still gives the filmmakers plenty to work with. The series contains, at this point, a leitmotif of killers standing over prone bodies, getting ready to kill their latest victim before they are gunned down by another killer, creating a kind of daisy chain of bloodshed. The Purge takes place in a world where the government tells those less intelligent than you—in this case, nearly every other citizen—what to do, and they do it, and you have no choice but to inflict massive violence in order to escape with your life, while remaining wholly capable of making noble and pacifist choices whenever possible.

The Purge, in other words, gives viewers access to a deeply American fantasy, one that speaks to a truth far darker than the scenario the franchise depicts, in which all Americans are keenly aware of their capacity of violence. Watching the Purge series, we take in scene after scene of sensational violence even as we are guided to a safe conclusion: I could never be that way. Yet it is this communal disbelief in our capacity for violence and dehumanization that allows us to do the greatest damage of all. And, in this sense, the Purge series presents a kind of utopia: It allows us to witness a version of America whose citizens understand exactly how many lives they are capable of destroying.

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by Sarah Marshall
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I like sandwich-centric traveling and writing about legal issues and the dancing that happens at the very end of parties and you. One time, I married the sea.

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1 Comment Has Been Posted

Some left out thoughts

One interesting thing the movie franchise does is the change in perspective for each movie. The first takes place from a wealthy perspective, the second from a lower class perspective, then from the place of a politician. The movie franchise I think does an interesting job visualizing class and racial privilege since the wealthy are able to purchase weapons and body armor to participate while the poor cannot and are forced to merely use what they have and shelter in place where possible and hope no one finds them. It shows that while the purge is meant to be a quote en quote, equalizer, in actuality the playing field isn't equal by any means.

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