The Purge is the latest in a long list of low-budget 2013 releases from Blumhouse Productions – but unlike the franchises it is best known for (Insidious, Sinister, and the infamous Paranormal Activity series) their latest vehicle makes an intentionally political point. The near-future conjured by writer/director James DeMonaco is an intriguing, albeit flawed metaphor. It is a place of peace and prosperity for 364 days of the year. March 21st is the exception to that rule.
On that day, between 7pm and 7am the morning after, citizens of the United States are encouraged by the government to engage in a mass slaughter – or as it is more chillingly put in the film, to “unleash the beast.” Television pundits speak directly to us, claiming the inherently violent nature of man can only be controlled in this manner – pointing to the bloody past that trails behind our ‘progress’ as a species. It’s an uncomfortable assertion, particularly in post-Woolwich Britain (a term I’m surprised hackneyed journalists haven’t coined already), with the threat of far-right violence constantly lurking in our collective subconscious.
The annual “purge”, we are told, is the reason why there is 1% unemployment, why crime is so low the rest of the year, and why America ‘thrives’. The poor, the sick, the vulnerable simply do not survive, whilst the predatory elements of society have their blood-thirst sated for another year. I say ‘we are told’, because aside from grainy security footage and occasional unconvincing news reports in the background, we never see any of it. The millions of victims in the purge are mostly nameless statistics – our focus, instead, is the wholesome home of a nuclear family – an upwardly mobile collection of white middle-class ‘strivers’.
Now let’s be clear before we go any further, we’re not just talking about subconscious ideology here – this is the type of movie that intentionally makes political assertions about the world through fiction. For the most part, The Purge is not at all subtle in the way it goes about delivering its message, shoe-horning in awkward analogies at every turn, often matching plot developments with clumsy faux-news reports outlining in detail what “oppositionists” think of The Purge.
Indeed, DeMonaco’s writing often defies logic in order to get his point across. I was baffled, for example, by the fact people who considered buying a boat as a luxury item, don’t simply go on holiday during the purge – if you can afford to jet to Bahamas whilst the annual slaughter takes place, why the hell would you stay? In fact sod that, why not leave the country all-together and conduct your business from abroad? It’s a premise that won’t stand up to close scrutiny then – but it seems to have been tolerated in order to make its point.
This ‘point’ is driven home when “Bloody Stranger” (that’s right, Edwin Hodge’s homeless vet doesn’t even have a name) seeks sanctuary in the Whitemiddleclassinson family’s house, fleeing a troop of old-money-types. They are given the option to send him out to die, or be slaughtered along with them. After Ethan Hawke (the career-obsessed Dad) tries to torture him into leaving, his daughter tells him he’s generally being a bit of a shit, and he decides to stand and fight instead.
The moral of DeMonaco’s story then, is that it is wrong to abandon those less fortunate in order to live more comfortable lives. It seems an appropriate message then, particularly in times when savage austerity measures are being implemented globally to things that ordinary people need to survive, in order to bail out a mess created by super-wealthy elites.
However, there are also a number of less pleasant implications that DeMonaco has less intentionally brought up in the plot. These implications are embodied by the characters “Bloody Stranger”, and by the house itself. I say “characters” here, because we probably know more about the house than we do about the homeless man who is apparently central to the plot.
We know the house has recently had it’s security upgraded, we know it has secret hiding spaces, we know it has a weapons room, and we know the family have only lived there within the past decade – having gone from being unable to meet rent deadlines, to owning a home of their own. We also know the neighbourhood are jealous of the splendid abode in which the Whitemiddleclassinsons reside. Now compare that to what we know about Bloody Stranger (henceforth known, appropriately, as BS).
BS is black, he has no home, he wears dog-tags, and he likes not being killed. Most of what I ‘know’ about him is merely interpretation – the dog-tags, the fact he is able to escape from the bondage the family leave him in and the fact he is very good in combat suggest he is probably a vet who fell on hard times. Now, for a film that is supposed to teach us the virtues of helping the poor, it doesn’t really seem to care much about its only poor character – the only person that, had things gone to plan, the purge would actually have affected.
Instead, we sit through large segments of bourgeois melodrama (will their daughter and her lover be together, can he close a business deal, will they buy a boat?) – induced only to care about the fate of this unfortunate soul when it is bound to that of his wealthy counterparts. This essentially reduces the character of BS to the depth of Chekhov’s Gun – he is a plot device, lurking conspicuously in the background, that will eventually be ‘of use’ to the protagonists. He is essentially as human as the gun-rack that we are also introduced to early in the film.
And what is his use here? He serves to help the family learn moral lessons, to appreciate what they have, to become better people, and eventually to save their lives. What thanks does he get in return? He limps off into the distance after the purge ends, presumably to have to face the ordeal again in a year’s time, still homeless. It is a shameless one-way exchange, which only really benefits the family, which will leave you gasping obscenities at the callous, uncaring way Mrs Whitemiddleclassinson (Lena Headey) lets him walk off toward his apparent doom. Typical Lannister.
The new-money clan are, arguably, as treacherous and predatory as the old-money savage gurning his way through a dodgy Heath Ledger/Joker impression at their gate. He describes BS’s “lot in life” to be to sacrifice his life for the sake of societal-stability. What our family of protagonists do is little different, in so far as they abandon him to next years slaughter as soon as he’s done helping them out.
This might well be an accurate depiction of the two aspects of ruling-class life to be fair – but that isn’t the problem here I would argue. The problem is the story is told from their perspective – it’s them we are supposed to feel concern for, hence we rarely venture beyond the confines of their mansion. The house itself then, and how central it is to the plot, is significant in so far as it underlines who Hollywood really believe are important – the sharp-elbowed middle class.
The assault on the beautifully furnished house is the ultimate unholy of all unholies. The sanctified institution of private property coming under attack from established old-money assailants is a clumsy signifier that we should start caring now, not because the poor are dying, but because this also affects one of the key institutions of capitalism and middle class aspiration. The writer then has accepted the ‘common sense’ argument that in order to deliver services essential to protect ordinary people, you must play on the fears of the middle class in order to gain their support. In other words, it stinks to high-heaven of Blair, Clinton and The Third Way.
We are constantly invited to assume that outside the suburbs of safety, brutal slaughter commences as the working class falls prey to predatory elements of the poor (drug dealers and other ‘ruffians’), and to the super-wealthy (who presumably straddle horses and don traditional red jackets whilst pursuing the poor with hounds). The suggestion is that without the support of the more intellectual aspiring middle-class, the poor will lose the support of the government and state apparatus, and will be annihilated by the landed gentry, if not by their own hand. And so rather than venture out to see what’s happening in the cities, we stay with those the writer assumes have the capacity to make change in society – and the ability to protect all us ‘vulnerable’ Hoi Polloi.
But this ignores probably the biggest elephant in the room – the fact that throughout the history of capitalism, members of the working class have had to fight collectively, tooth and nail for their very survival. Through solidarity, the one thing that the ‘vulnerable’ multitude that we are led to believe would be purged have learned time and again is how to survive.
It’s a lesson hard learned from various battles, and even harder to forget during continued assaults from the wealthy. I honestly don’t believe it would be any different without police or military intervention – in fact it would probably become a damn sight easier for ordinary people to bat off the attacks of the 1% like a horse’s tail swatting so many flies.
Solidarity means those who unite around the murder of Clément Méric can defeat fascism in France. It is so powerful that it’s the one concept that gives me some kind of hope that the EDL and other hate mongers won’t win out here in the UK – even in the wake of Woolwich, or the multiple race-based terror attacks on Muslims since. But that tradition of solidarity is overlooked here, and because of that, DeMonaco’s film fails to really deliver a meaningful message on helping your fellow human beings in troubled times. Instead, as is often case with ‘liberal’ Hollywood, it falls into the trap of hand-wringing to the exploiter to be nicer to deserving members of the exploited.