Thirteen Things about The Purge
13. If you enjoyed the Oryx and Crake readalong and don't mind a bit of Horror in your movie diet, you might want to check out The Purge. It mixes dystopian themes and Slasher elements, and was definitely "the right movie at the right time" for me last weekend.
12. The setting is a divided United States--an oxymoron that may be the very heart of the American Dystopian tradition. Here, too, the country is split into "Compounds" and "pleeblands"--though, of course, the reasons are different from those envisioned by Margaret Atwood, who is unforgivably Canadian anyway. Just note that it's not an official division: the country is considered united. Indeed, what causes the division is celebrated as a uniting force, like every other national holiday. Of course I refer to The Purge: the annual twelve-hour period in which all laws are completely suspended and anyone may do anything with total impunity.
11. You'd think they'd just loot the malls or something, but apparently, what millions of Americans choose to do with all that "freedom" (Oh, I get it now . . .) is to kill each other in the most brutal ways they can imagine.
A little over-the-top, I thought . . . until I considered the long shadow of the Salem Witch Trials . . . the canonical importance of Shirley Jackson's short story The Lottery . . . and yes, Christopher, the massive popularity of The Hunger Games.
10. I'll admit that I love the first third of The Purge, which sets up the cultural framework perfectly. And I don't mean the grainy footage from security cameras that are meant to add "authenticity" to the opening credits, but the ambivalence of the upper-middle class Sandin family, who are willing to put up with the annual Purge as a necessary evil . . . but who can't shake the unease of knowing that this evil, which is so much harsher on the poor, has made them really rich.
9. Speaking of "found footage," I'm kind of tired of it as a storytelling technique. As far as I'm concerned, it peaked with Paranormal Activity (See my Twelve Things!), and after that, it was never more than a gimmick. While the Sandins' security cameras both make sense and add to the creepy atmosphere, the one gimmicky camera in the plot . . .
I'm not bloody kidding =|
. . . could have been, with some creativity, cut out entirely.
Seriously, what does that gizmo even mean??? . . . And of course, as soon as I wrote that rhetorical question, a perfectly decent answer suggested itself to me. =P Beyond the symbolism of the camera mounted on a remote-controlled car representing the teenage son's emotional distance from his parents, we have the macabre choice of a burned, dismembered baby hinting that the Sandins bear the guilt of a "purge" in their own family. For yes, substances known as purgatives have often been used to get rid of unborn babies. And this subtext is so fantastic that I'm going to call a truce on the stupid camera. LOL!
8. As mentioned, the survivors among the Sandins' 2.1 children aren't crazy about the Purge. The son believes it is wrong in an abstract sense that he can't quite articulate, and the daughter isn't too happy that the boy whom she is in love with has to go home to an area that won't be as safe as hers that night. What I like most is that their opposition isn't all spelled out--and in the daughter's case, not even thoroughly figured out. And the film respects our intelligence by relying heavily on visual clues in the young lovebirds' first scene: including an image of a man sharpening a butcher's knife beyond the fence dividing the Sandins' poncy community from the rest of the area . . . and a balcony for their parting (Oh, such sweet sorrow!), which suggests--although nothing is ever made explicit--that our dystopian Romeo and Juliet are social-class-crossed lovers.
7. I also really like what the mother does after the house is completely locked down for the night. Running on a treadmill with her back to the steel-plate-covered window is a great symbol of denial!
6. But it's the father who is the most morally complex character of all. We might not like him for making a fortune from selling Purge-proof home security systems--but the Purge itself is not his fault. And he doesn't go out and "hunt" other people as some of the neighbours do, although he'd never take away their "right" to do so. He supports the Purge because he remembers just how bad the country was before they had it . . . but (and here's the script being clever again!) how much of that is coloured by his memories of how badly his own family had it?
If we ignore the abortion subtext, we have to admit that he's a model husband and father: a good provider who comes home in time for dinner and genuinely cares how everyone is doing. He'd also kill to protect them all, but sets up their life so that he doesn't have to. Even his daughter seems more piqued that he is enough of a dad to forbid her from seeing a much older boy than scandalised that he so perfectly represents one force that lets an annual atrocity like the Purge continue. We'd be hard pressed to say he's a bad guy, and yet what happens next reminds me of my friend Bob's understandable misquoting of Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn's definition of leftism as "the overthrow of the father." (There should be an endnote for this, so there is.)
5. What happens next is that a character known only as the Bloody Stranger enters the Sandin home. They know absolutely nothing about him and can be forgiven for fearing that he means them harm--not because he is "hunting," but because he might think he needs to defend himself from them and strike preemptively. Soon, matters escalate until his very presence is a real threat to their safety (which is a bad thing) . . . but the solution to boot him out of the house would mean being an accessory to his murder (which is an even worse thing). It's a gripping moral dilemma, aye? So I'm sad to say that it is in the attempt to resolve it that the movie completely unravels.
Or perhaps the breakdown is in the attempt to deny that the real moral issue here is that the father's authority is being threatened.
4. Oh, yeah . . . the Sandins are white and the Bloody Stranger is black. I don't want this to be an issue because I see The Purge as commentary on fatherhood (which is natural) rather than on a racially divided society (which is accidental) . . . but the movie doesn't want me to have what I want. =(
3. Yet never let it be said that I deliberately ignore what the other side is saying just because I don't like it. I can totally explain what The Purge is about . . .
As the name suggests, the annual Purge is supposed to be a cleansing ritual--one night of sin and mayhem, so you can get them out of your system and be a content, law-abiding citizen for the rest of the year. It's not necessarily a magical ritual: even a philosophical materialist could see how occasionally culling the poor classes would have a positive effect on the economy. Indeed, The Purge is satirising the divide between America's Haves and Have-Nots--and it gets that where there is human sacrifice, there is also a sense of religion. For in grappling with the the mystery of why some get to live while others die, a few will come to believe that those who live are somehow purer. You might have encountered this heresy in the supposedly secular idea that the poor are poor because they choose to be lazy . . . or because they were born reprobates. (Get thee behind me, John Calvin!) It's a fantastic premise; it just faceplants hard on its own proposed solution and doesn't even realise it.
2. Let's just say that you can't overthrow the father and exalt the "cuckolder figure" at the same time. But you may have to read some Kuehnelt-Leddihn to understand who the true villain of The Purge is.
1. Finally, I've watched too many Slasher movies in years gone by to be very patient with people who behave as the Sandins do when there's a possible killer on the loose. It is this, more than anything else, that killed The Purge for me . . . long before the actual ending really lost me.
ENDNOTE: In search of the phrase "the overthrow of the father," I obtained an electronic copy of Kuehnelt-Leddihn's Leftism: From de Sade and Marx to Hitler and Marcuse and used CTRL+F to find first the word "overthrow" and then the word "father." And what I found was an early description of bolsheviks as "creatures who wanted . . . the eternal overthrow of everything" (Emphasis mine) . . . followed by an account of various philosophical challenges to both natural and symbolic fatherhood . . . and in its own endnotes, the quotation "the murder of the father," attributed to Leon Plumyene and Raymond Lassiera and found again in Jean Lacroix, all of whom I'm namedropping as if I know them, aye? LOL! But the point is that Bob's memory was close enough. =)
Image Sources: a) The Purge poster, b) The Purge screen cap, c) Gimmicky camera, d) The Sandins at dinner, e) Masked hunters