“This is the Emergency Broadcast System, announcing the commencement of the annual purge. At the siren, all emergency services will be suspended for twelve hours. Your government thanks you for your participation.”
The frustrated novelist in me hasn’t stirred for several years, though once upon a time his grand designs, non-stop pseudo-profundities, and fussy protestations were the entirety of my creative life. He had big plans indeed. Once, over the better part of a two-year period fresh out of college, I spent large chunks of my free time furiously writing, and even more fervently outlining/game-planning, my own great American novel, a conceptually sprawling yet intimate, (I thought) painfully claustrophobic, tale of desperate survival in a dystopian future. The more I worked on actually writing the most vivid individual moments, the more thought I found myself giving over to backstory and larger concepts, mentally adding characters and scenes and set pieces by first the hand and then the bucketful, until what had started years earlier as a short story in my college Creative Writing class had been officially earmarked as not just a novel but a trilogy. I loved building the world so much that it stole a massive amount of thunder from the writing process. I realized I was spit-balling rather than producing, running in place instead of covering ground. Moreover, so relentlessly bleak was my vision of future America – which I don’t think I’ll divulge here, just in case I might ever want to revisit it – that the very act of writing was depressing me. I was mentally exhausted, and, beyond certain that my current course of action, if followed to the end, would hopelessly overextend my writing talents and expose my storytelling weaknesses, I made the difficult decision to scrap all that work. The premise had real potential, though, and it hasn’t left me, even years later.
On occasion, I’d idly brainstorm another movement of this gutter ballet, and, not revolted at the results, wonder all over again if I could possibly pull the whole thing off. Then, a few years ago, I happened upon a legitimate way forward, should I choose to accept it. My untenable “trilogy” of novels would be surgically pruned and compressed into a large volume of short stories, with separate, occasionally overlapping protagonists and situations, all informed by and set against that common backdrop. Suddenly, I felt tantalized by the prospect of writing in a way I hadn’t since the project’s inception, though I soon realized that, by emphasizing breadth over depth, I was trading one set of potential problems for another. Did I have the requisite skill or vision to cobble together a living, breathing, seething, three-dimensional world out of loosely-connected vignettes? The fact that I haven’t as yet moved on this second chance sheds light on the trepidation I still feel, though my interim work on this blog has served as both impediment to that cause and a fun but demanding substitute. My lingering misgivings flared back to life as object lessons the longer I gave myself to ponder 2013’s The Purge, which, with its sequel, Anarchy, resembles nothing so much as an eye-catching but ultimately malnourishing short story pulled from a larger collection recounting America’s gradual, horrifying slide (or march, depending on your perspective) toward a police state. Our respective American daydreams actually have a passing bit in common, though the fulcrum on which each story, and society at large, turns is different. As I watched the Purge movies, I learned all over again just how tricky immersive and convincing world-building can be when it proceeds from a modern starting point, and, as a result, I may finally be ready to shelve my book idea permanently.
That being said, tell me straight…have you ever wanted to kill somebody?
Or, to put it just a bit differently, have you ever wanted to kill…anybody? Be honest.
Visually, the world of The Purge is hardly removed at all from the one we currently inhabit, making it a somewhat rare example of a futuristic film where the differences with modern day are predominantly philosophical rather than technological (or at least a lumpy, heady mixture of both). This sort of street level familiarity is crucial to both audience orientation and the long-term effectiveness of the films and their central conceit, since flying cars, strange uniforms, fully sentient A.I., or an overabundance of chrome anything would instantly take viewers out of the experience. The Purge takes place in the early 2020s, in a stealth-totalitarian but outwardly sunny America recently “reborn” under the stewardship of a consortium of civic and business leaders called – throughout the movies, repeatedly, and with a straight, increasingly grave, face – the “New Founding Fathers”, or NFFA. The NFFA came to sudden national power via a radical urban renewal plan aimed not at buildings and infrastructure but at eradicating human blight, the centerpiece of which is “The Purge”, an annual, government-sanctioned, national orgy of violence and destruction. For twelve evening and overnight hours of a certain day every March, all crime is legal, up to and especially murder. The logic, which sounds alternately persuasive or insane on a moment by moment/speaker by speaker basis, goes that, in exchange for low single-digit unemployment*, steadily decreasing poverty numbers, and what the films trumpet as the near total eradication of crime, a blood sacrifice was necessary. Mankind, it turns out, could behave reasonably and peacefully coexist if coaxed, even if its primal impulses to hunt and kill could not be so easily sated. So, in exchange for utopia 364.5 days of the year, America must endure a half day in hell.** Pro tip: stay indoors.
*”Anarchy” will delve deeper into the extreme class resentment that powers the purge, but the NFFA’s greater poverty, unemployment, and crime arguments, left wisely unspoken in public, basically boil down to Bobcat Goldthwait’s classic response to why there tends to be so little unemployment during wartime: “Because a dead guy can’t flip a burger.”
**The details of how an arrangement like this could possibly have become the law of the land are arguably the most fascinating aspects of a movie series that aims to titillate and intrigue, so, naturally, they are withheld. Instead, we are treated to entirely too many scenes in which grinning, dead-eyed, otherwise upstanding citizens pledge cult-like allegiance to the NFFA and its motives. America has both enabled and endured so much violence in its history – I watched the movies a scant few days after the nation’s most recent school massacre occurred in Oregon – but, even with that as prologue, I felt almost insulted, not by the premise, which has a blunt, eerie plausibility to it beneath all the muck, but by the heedless zeal with which so many ostensibly reasonable people are characterized as supporting it. It’s an almost unfathomably cynical position to take, even for a mild exploitation flick masquerading as cautionary tale. Even with all our differences and challenges, couldn’t America possibly be better than THAT? I mean, isn’t America smarter than that? Anybody? Crickets?
James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) is remarkably cool with this state of affairs. As a home security salesman, it’s made him an incredibly wealthy man. His suburban mansion is, by all outward appearances, an opulent fortress, the nuclear family it protects a platonic ideal. Given that there is less than a decade separating the date of this writing from the 2023 in which The Purge takes place, it’s more than a little disconcerting how thoroughly and unquestioningly the NFFA party line has been taken up by true believers among the general population – since all but the youngest will doubtless nurse vivid memories of the old world – and also just how many of those there appear to be. Local newscasts count down the minutes until the purge begins with graphics and a sense of festive duty worthy of Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve building up to the ball drop, and speculate convivially about how the death tolls might differ from prior years. Inside the Sandin compound, James’ wife, Mary (slumming Queen of Westeros Lena Headey), and young son, Charlie, are anxious, while his teenage daughter Zoe feigns indifference. Only James is at ease, secure in his belief in the essential worth of both the holiday and its founders, and the unspoken knowledge that people like him are rarely the preferred targets on a night like this. When Zoe’s ne’er-do-well boyfriend shows up in her bedroom in the minutes following “lockdown”, however, he proves to be only the first of the night’s several uninvited callers. Charlie watches a frightening scene play out on his front porch by security camera, as a man wandering the street screams desperately for someone to help him. Charlie is eventually overcome by the moment and breaches security protocol to give the man refuge. Soon, the Sandin family, with two intruders already in the house, finds itself accosted by a small army of purgers, dressed in grotesque, smiling masks and formal wear from neck to toe, laughing and skipping gaily, and brandishing machine guns and machetes. The young leader speaks like a missionary representative of a religious cult, civilly laying out the situation to a dumbfounded James: The group had targeted the man Charlie let in off the street for “purging”. Well, obviously. Return him, says the Smiling Stranger in not so few words, or everyone in the house dies in his place.
The Purge will follow this simple, terrifying scenario to its logical endpoint, then beyond. Across town – I forget exactly what year the Sandins received their unwelcome visitors, but I choose to believe it happened the same night – The Purge: Anarchy, its chaotic sequel, sees the same overarching event through a much wider lens. Downtown, there is precious little of the cautious optimism or empty platitudes that allow wealthy suburbanites to sleep at night. Downtown is a full-on war zone. The air is thick with menace even hours ahead of time, as a squabbling young couple conveniently breaks down on exactly the wrong bridge and is left to their own devices, and Eva Sanchez (Carmen Egojo) returns from her waitressing job to her tenement apartment building to find an overly helpful neighbor enthusiastically offering “protection” during the night’s revels. After deflecting his advances, we are introduced to the Sanchez family, which includes Eva’s disillusioned father, who is protecting a horrible secret, and her headstrong daughter, Cali (Zoe Soul), who watches anti-purge propaganda videos (featuring, in an impossibly satisfying, possibly pre-ordained, incidence of stunt-casting, The Wire’s Michael K. Williams as the fiery resistance leader) in mounting frustration. Unlike its predecessor’s trek through gated community-land, which at least paid it lip service, Anarchy eschews up front the theory that locked doors provide any protection by having a paramilitary squad invade the building and turn out its inhabitants for slaughter by a comically ominous figure known as “Big Daddy”, a butcher apron-wearing alpha thug who indiscriminately shreds great groups of insta-victims with a chain gun mounted in the back of his delivery van. Eva and Cali and the young couple are rescued, in an extended sequence that veers from dumb luck to good samaritanism to bad luck before the characters can blink, by “Sargent”, a Mad Max-like street survivalist out on the prowl with a personal arsenal, a souped-up car, and enigmatic, almost certainly murderous, intentions. Anarchy, by virtue of its kinetic sensibilities, and the flexibility granted by its extended cast and canvas, is the more immediately arresting of the two movies, and effective for a time at dumping its flock of clay pigeons out of the frying pan and into a series of progressively hotter fires.
Just because The Purge, with its scant 81-minute run time, is, by definition, a lean movie does not mean that it is either a slight or efficient one. Its occasional, additional wild grasps at profundity, coupled with the thematic juice inherent in its premise and specific setting, are far too great to allow the former, but, for a white knuckle home invasion thriller, it also suffers from a conspicuous lack of sustained action or tension. It’s never a question of if the hunting party will infiltrate the mansion, but when, and it’s left to a game but sputtering Hawke to provide focus and pathos as we watch his life rapidly unravel before him. The internal threat posed by the man let in from the street seems, sadly, to exist mostly along racial lines, and is never really explored within the larger context of the night. The masked besiegers milling about outside are all identifiably Caucasian, as are the Sandins, and certainly appear to be privileged, so there is a larger conversation on racial and class politics practically begging to be had. The filmmakers sidestep any deeper dive, however, content to merely present a thesis statement along the lines of, “the rich would happily hunt the poor for sport if society let them,” which, while provocative, isn’t exactly groundbreaking. This is a tricky area. It could, of course, be argued that too much overt commentary would only bog down the action – indeed, it’s one of the areas in which I find the much more engaged Anarchy lacking – but, on the other hand, if discussions never proceed beyond the perfunctory, what is the point of envisioning such a harrowing future? Part of The Purge’s downfall is that, through the very act of marking a rich, white family for death at the hands of other upper-class WASPs, it believes it is making a powerful political statement. The truth is that the masked intruders mainly seem crazy just for the sake of being crazy. The exorbitant amount of time they waste waiting for the Sandins to extradite the condemned man before finally breaking in feels like a screenwriting concession and nothing else. In its embrace, at least in theory, of the full spectrum and wider ramifications of “Purge Night”, Anarchy, though considerably flawed itself, is the more honest and involving film, and presents a convincingly dangerous, relatively unpredictable (though not always to the movie’s benefit) gauntlet for its ragtag roadshow to navigate.
As an experience, The Purge ends up feeling about half as nasty or even boundary-pushing as its setup promised (for contemporary home invasion thrills, check out Bryan Bertino’s pitch black The Strangers, or Adam Wingard’s rollicking slasher hybrid You’re Next instead), whereas Anarchy at least has the element of surprise working overtime until it too exhausts itself about 2/3 of the way through. It’s instructive to note how differently the filmmakers treat what is essentially the same narrative – ostensible innocents flee then fight back against immoral, utterly lawless hordes – lending credence to the notion that these two movies work best as short stories pulled from the purge’s larger history. Both films are enthusiastic, entertaining, but ultimately mediocre examples of the dynamic but underseen hybrid genre of action/horror, with The Purge leaning heavier on the horror end of things and Anarchy functioning almost as a throwback tribute to ‘70s “Urban Nightmare” movies like Death Wish and John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. Nifty little details help define the world, like the single bouquets of blue flowers that families abstaining from the purge place outside their front doors – a way, theoretically, to express solidarity for the new world order on its bloodiest night, while simultaneously appealing to the better natures of those out hunting so that the people huddling inside won’t be targeted – or the unsubtle, classist dig that Hawke was able to build a pricey addition onto his family’s already impressive suburban mansion financed by all those state of the art home security upgrades he sold to his neighbors. It’s easy to sense the neighborhood’s resentment, even as the upstanding Hawke remains compliant and generally clueless, wrapped in a cloak of misplaced, and misconceived, righteousness. Anarchy’s protagonists are, by contrast, frazzled from the get go, detrimentally chattier, and, as open air moving targets, more conventionally vulnerable. The cast struggles with measured success to inhabit, rather than perform, their roles, but the writing lets them down. Even the purge premise begins selectively repeating itself to diminishing returns. This is a particularly awful and vibrant world. Shouldn’t its endgames be appropriately dire? Both films fumble the setup to one degree or other, and neither sticks the landing.
The design and construction of the original Purge – practically a standard, three-act, single location play – ensures that it feels self-contained to a fault. It squanders a compelling setup instead of exploring it, content to tread water while erupting in periodic, oddly unmoving, violence. Only in the late act reveal of Mary Sandin’s depths of resolve and bravery, in which Headey does by far the best acting work in either film, does The Purge partially redeem itself. Anarchy addresses its forebear’s problems by overcorrecting, and, in its efforts to show how the other half dies, arguably tries to fit in too much. This buffet philosophy works for a time, but flames out nevertheless, not dramatically but tediously (as a visual tool, night vision goggles never get old). Viewed as a double feature, as I basically did, The Purge and Anarchy comprise a mildly oppressive, disappointingly overstuffed three-hour film, though I understand the temptation to want to throw every piece of red meat into the stew, believe me. In terms of worthy ideas and usable material – and with some judicious editing – one envisions a combined single Purge feature hitting the sweet spot somewhere between 100 minutes and two hours, offering, in its jagged cuts between the survivors’ ongoing ordeal downtown and the siege unfolding at the Sandin mansion, a gripping and entertaining overview of a world gone completely mad, its blows landing harder, allowing for even more moments of disorientation or surprise, the greater enterprise never outstaying its welcome. I also think the juxtaposition between the two stories would make their respective endings, each of which involves a cast member’s explicit, highly motivated, and, perhaps, understandable, choice to kill or not to kill more moving than as they are currently presented. That said, I can’t pretend that Hawke’s increasingly desperate conversations with the Smiling Stranger through his front door’s peephole, or the initial images of Anarchy’s masked, marauding street gangs roaring into frame to apprehend random pedestrians – or merely staring holes through the young couple and/or mother and daughter from an imminently coverable distance – aren’t potent. They are, but they alone can’t sustain these movies, which, given enough time, either meander off the tracks completely or eventually crumble under their thematic weight.
“The Purge” (2013) 2/4 stars
“The Purge: Anarchy” (2014) 2.5/4 stars