Ethan Hawke has been making some interesting filmic choices lately, the latest being in James DeMonaco’s The Purge, which postulates a future (2022) where, in order to combat the growing tensions and anxiety, all law enforcement is suspended for 12 hours, one night (March 21, 7pm – March 22, 7am) a year. During this time period, (almost) anything goes (high ranking politicians and certain military grade weapons are exempt) including murder. In fact, the argument could be made that murder is the primary reason for this annual “purge” of negative emotions. And things seem to be working. As of 2022, unemployment is down to 1% and violent crime is on a serious decline.
Early on in the film, DeMonaco, who also writes, makes sure we don’t miss the point he drives home later in the film, mainly that the statistics can be skewed. When G.W.Bush was governor of Texas, his record of high school test scores was impressive, until one realized that he was only using the scores of those who could pass, eliminating the negative from the mix. The same is an argument made here. If, on one night a year, we allow the privileged to take out the unproductive members of society, then the natural progression would mean that unemployment would go done, simply because there weren’t the people to be unemployed. Likewise, if you killed the perpetrators of violent crimes with no repercussions to yourself, then the number of violent criminals would, by necessity, drop. DeMonaco, in not trusting his audience to get it, has a news program talking head explain this to us within the first few minutes of the film.
This, and other, news programs are being watched by the Sandin family, led by James (Hawke). James has a perfect wife, Mary, a socially awkward (but technically savvy) younger son, Charlie, and a rebellious teenage daughter, Zoe, with an older boyfriend. Like today, when universities are training students for jobs which don’t yet exist, James is a purge night security system salesman and quite successful at that. And the night starts off simply, with family dinner, and the ritualistic lowering of the security grates. They all settle in to watch some Purge Night television, maybe a movie, and just breathe easy until the morning. Things go awry, though, when Charlie sees a wounded man wandering the streets, begging for help. Being a decent human being, Charlie opens the security system and lets him in. Naturally, this is part of a catalyst. The other part is Zoe’s boyfriend, who decides tonight is the best night to have a chat with his paramour’s father about why they should be allowed to be together.
As the night progresses, a group of preppy 20-somethings show up, looking for the wounded man. The leader of this group makes DeMonaco’s point about this being a class warfare answer much better than the ham-fisted way he approached it earlier in the text. The thriller element then takes over, as the gang breaks past the security system and goes after the family, which has had its own share of moral questioning.
By the time 7am rolls around, there are lots of dead bodies and, as Zoe so aptly states, “nothing will ever be the same again.” Nothing unexpected happens, though. DeMonaco is not a clever enough writer or director for that. Instead, though, the strength of this film is in the discussion it could (and should) cause. The question of what would you do if you could do anything has been a long standing one. It’s where we begin discussions of personal morality and responsibility.
There’s a question often asked by theists of atheists: “Without god, what stops you from raping and killing as many people as you want?” to which the answer is “nothing. I kill and rape as many people as I want, but I don’t want to because it’s the wrong thing to do.” And yet… and yet… psychological studies continue to tell us that fully 50% of the population say they would kill or rape if they could get away with it. And that’s what this film does well. It shows how slippery that slope is, how far we might be willing to go, especially if the only thing on the line is our own conscience.