The Purge franchise is one of the stranger phenomena in modern popular cinema. Its financial success is unsurprising – it is virtually impossible not to profit on a wide-release horror film – but it receives constant commentary far outstripping its popularity. All but one installment of the Insidious franchise, Blumhouse’s other four-film horror series, outperformed the corresponding installment of the Purge franchise by a significant distance, but barely made a blip in the cultural discourse. There’s just something about The Purge that inspires furious fits of hot-takery.
Obviously, part of what makes it such a popular topic is that it’s just about as overtly political as horror comes. No one needs to tease out subtext when they’re writing about The Purge, because there is no subtext. Everything is helpfully signposted by the filmmakers. The official rationale for the Purge – a 12-hour period every year when all crime, including murder, is legal – is that it promotes social harmony by giving everyone a sanctioned time and space to “purge” their negative feelings. They credit the Purge with producing extremely low crime and unemployment rates, less than one percent, and they’re right to do so. But it’s not because everyone’s working out their anger issues by murdering each other. It’s because the wealthy are able to fortify their homes to protect themselves from the Purge, while the poor are not only without protection, but actively hunted by the wealthy, who can also afford to arm themselves better than the poor. Every year, rich people spill into the streets of this dystopian future America and murder the impoverished and vulnerable en mass. It’s not psychology, it’s eugenics. The Purge could let you work this out on your own, but it doesn’t want to leave any ambiguity, so the first film is peppered with news reports where this point is made explicitly. Lots of reviewers criticised the lack of subtlety: we get it, we get it. The Purge is about class warfare.
Except it’s not. Not really.
Many critics of the first film faulted the lack of elaboration on its premise. After laying out such an intriguing concept, The Purge takes place almost entirely in the home of the Sandin family. James (Ethan Hawke) is a salesman at a company that sells anti-Purge security systems to the wealthy. He and his wife, Mary (Lena Headey), live in an upscale suburb with their two children, Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and Charlie (Max Burkholder). Neither James nor Mary participates in the Purge, but they leave blue flowers on their doorstep every year to indicate their support (and dissuade attacks). Later films in the series take place “in” the Purge, and explore the political reality of the world in which the Purge occurs. The Sandins would have passed a quiet night in front of the TV had Charlie not shown compassion to a homeless black veteran (Edwin Hodge) fleeing a group of sadistic yuppies and lifted the house’s security measures to let him in. (I suppose Zoey’s douchebag boyfriend would still have tried to murder James, but that’s such a small part of the film it’s really neither here nor there.) The Purge is the film in the series least about the Purge itself, and it’s often described as wasting the premise in comparison to the later, better-received entries in the franchise, using it as a thin veneer of social commentary over a fairly boilerplate home invasion flick. But that’s not a fair read: The Purge isn’t trying to be a movie about society. It’s a movie about its characters, and how money compromised their morality.
The film is fairly blunt about its themes, though apparently not enough. The Sandins are a family who have recently experienced that rarest of things, class mobility. “10 years ago, we could barely afford rent,” says an incredulous James to Mary, as Purge Night gets underway. “Now we’re thinking about buying a boat.” James got rich from selling security systems to the wealthy, which many reviews correctly note, but few, if any, recognise that for James to get rich, he had to be not-rich before. But this recent mobility goes to the heart of the film. James and, to a lesser extent, Mary are living the life they’ve always dreamed, but at a cost to their souls. James rattles off propaganda talking points to reassure his sweet, soft-hearted son that the Purge is good and righteous early in the film, but though he tries, he can’t put a lick of sincerity into it. He knows the Purge is wrong, he’s just numbed himself to his own moral instincts out of self-interest.
This is the real heart of The Purge. James’ and Mary’s character arcs are about reawakening the sense of moral right and wrong they’ve suppressed in order to get ahead in life. They start the film treating Charlie as if he’s a wide-eyed idealist for thinking mass murder is bad. By the end, it’s clear to us and to them that Charlie is the only decent person in their family. The impetus for this transformation is the moral quandary of what to do with the “Bloody Stranger” that Charlie let in the house once the pack of posh psychopaths who were hunting him come knocking. James starts off certain: they’ll capture him and hand him over to save their own skin. But when the moment of truth comes, he begins to falter. He and Mary have to torture the Stranger to subdue him, but it proves too much for Mary. “When did this happen? James, look at you,” and he does, and he’s covered in the blood of an innocent man seeking shelter from a pack of murderous lunatics, a man he’s trying to throw back to the wolves. “What the hell happened to us, James?”
They became wealthy. And in the process of becoming wealthy, they taught themselves how to not care about other people. First, they made believe the Purge was okay. They were poor and they needed to make a better life for themselves and their children, so they compromised on what they felt – what they knew – was right. But once you give yourself permission to turn off your morality one time, you’ve handed yourself a lifetime pass. When the hunting party says they’ll break down the door of the Sandins’ home if the Stranger isn’t returned to them, James admits to exaggerating the protective capabilities of the security system to hit sales targets. They only work because they deter people from attacking in the first place:
“James, they can’t get in here, right? They can’t get into our home.”
“I don’t know. It’s hard to say.”
“You don’t know? You sell these security systems. What do you mean, you don’t know?”
“We have tested the system. It works 99 percent of the time. It looks good. It’s strong. People stay away.”
“It looks good?”
“It’s not built for worst-case scenarios.”
“Is it impenetrable?”
“No, nothing’s impenetrable. Things like this are not supposed to happen in our neighbourhood.”
The Purge isn’t about the Purge because the Purge is just a litmus test for morality in the narrative, a clearly evil thing that benefits the rich and harms the poor, against which the character development of the Sandins can be measured. The moral failing of the Sandins is embodied by their willingness to accept the Purge is “supposed to happen”, as long as it doesn’t happen in their neighbourhood. They reclaim the humanity they shed when they stop seeing other people as disposable and choose to save the Stranger’s life by fighting off the roving purgers instead of turning him over for their own benefit. The Purge as a concept could certainly be taken in a different direction, and used to look at society on a more macro level, as the sequels do. But it’s not a failure of The Purge that it limits its scope to one family and the salvation of their souls.
Dystopian fiction often suffers this unfair burden in critical analysis, where the political reality of the narrative gets more focus than the narrative itself. People concern themselves too much with the mechanics of the fictional setting, on whether it’s “realistic”. They’re assumed to be “predictions” of what the future might hold, and judged on their likelihood of “coming true”. The most common victims of this crude analysis are the classic works of dystopian literature, particularly Brave New World, 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale. Nathan Robinson, a writer whose work I deeply admire, wrote a terrible article about 1984 in Current Affairs that judges its success as a novel first by how well it reflected the reality of mid-20th century dystopias (poorly, because it’s a work of fiction) and then by how well it predicted the future (poorly, because it’s a work of fiction, and it’s impossible to predict the future). The New York Times had two writers debate whether the world now is more like 1984 or Brave New World. Margaret Atwood felt the need to state bluntly that her work isn’t meant to foresee the future, because she was sick of people acting like it was.
Dystopias aren’t “warnings”. They take certain features of the current conditions of society, exaggerate them and explore the inner lives of the kind of people who might live in them. Our society is built on the mass exploitation of the poor by the rich, and even though owning huge amounts of wealth while others suffer due to poverty is self-evidently evil, people do just accept it as a non-negotiable reality. The Purge looks at the Sandins and how they’ve wilfully closed off their moral imaginations in exchange for wealth, and it doesn’t say “this is what our society could be like one day”, it says “this is what our society is like now, only you don’t notice because you’re used to it”.