In the opening scene of James DeMonaco’s 2013 horror hit The Purge, home security systems salesman James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) is driving home on the eve of the titular holiday where all crime will be legal for 12 hours, allowing the citizens of the United States to quote unquote expel their hateful feelings in a nationwide orgy of murder and mayhem. As Sandin casually makes his way to his newly renovated home, he listens to a talk radio show where a call-in listener says the annual Purge Night is merely a cover for a government-sanctioned extermination of minorities and the lower classes. The host quickly hangs up, stating “well, everybody has an opinion,” before talking to a man who plans to track down and murder his boss during the evening’s festivities.
This is the thesis for what has become one of the most politically astute, yet critically ignored film franchises of the past decade. Despite financial success, the first three films of The Purge series — the originals plus sequels Anarchy (2014) and Election Year (2016), leading to this week’s Independence Day release of the latest installment, The First Purge — have all failed to earn majority praise from critics, landing within the lower percentiles on both Rotten Tomatoes and MetaCritic and earning ridicule online for the absurdity of its “all crime is legal” premise. But although the films of this Blumhouse-produced series may be on the nose in their satire, the political anger of DeMonaco’s trilogy is palpable and continues to rise in relevance as we barrel into the back-half of Donald Trump’s first term as President.
In a 2016 interview during the promotional tour for Election Year, writer/director DeMonaco told Fandango he was inspired by the “smuggler cinema” of George Romero and John Carpenter, two filmmakers who used genre to sneak radical ideas into mainstream movies. Much like the anti-capitalist streak of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Carpenter’s They Live, The Purge trilogy subverts its studio-backed production to deliver a conscious critique of capitalism, racism, and the unflinching slaughterhouse of corporate rule that fuels modern society. At its best moments, the series recalls the urban dystopia depicted in underground leftist works like Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames but filtered through a mainstream popcorn lens that makes the message palatable for mainstream audiences.
The first film’s release came during a political eye-in-the-storm. Released in June 2013 when liberalism still appeared powerful in our government — eight months after Barack Obama’s re-election and one year before the murder of Michael Brown and the Ferguson riots — DeMonaco had his finger on the pulse, fully aware of American society’s bloody trajectory.
What’s most striking from the opening moments of the original The Purge is the normalcy of the white upper class as the clock ticks down to the final moments before commencement. Mary Sandin (Lena Headey) makes dinner as usual, and reminds her kids to remember “all the good the Purge does.” The Sandins are nouveau riche, having made a fortune selling security systems to their neighbors, and The Purge’s financial benefits have given them the luxury of ignoring the genocide occurring around them.
“You don’t remember how bad it was, Charlie,” the Sandins’ son is told over dinner. “All the poverty, all the crime. This night saved our country.”
These Good Germans are indicative of the kind of upper class that likes to tell you how they have gay friends yet quietly vote against civil rights in favor of their own economic interests. Although DeMonaco’s depictions of the rich are often as cartoonish sociopaths — over-educated country club kids, CEOs with paramilitaries, politicians with a God-ordained hatred of the poor — the Sandins are among the truest and most subtly villainous of these caricatures. As the Purge commences, they turn off the violence shown on TV and James begins looking at pictures of boats on his iPad — “Ten years ago we could barely afford rent, now we’re looking at buying a boat.” But it’s in the facial acting by Hawke and Headey that we read their uneasiness about their complicity in the bloodshed. The lies they tell their children about the good of the Purge are also lies they’re telling themselves to justify their lifestyle.
But when Charlie lets a homeless black man (Edwin Hodge) into their home on Purge Night, James has no hesitation about killing this man as quickly as possible. The Sandins’ bigotry is subconscious and their queasiness about Purge Night makes their complicity and profiteering as disgusting as the masked Ivy Leaguers who will break into their house so they may kill the “homeless pig,” as they call him.
Edwin Hodge deserves particular praise for his performance as the homeless stranger. Hodge is tasked with representing humanity in an environment that actively dehumanizes him, and his eyes communicate the fear and anger of a man in a culture designed to kill him. The masked purgers want his life out of bored cruelty and their dialogue is that of a straw man depiction of power-tripping rich kids, but it is James who provides the film’s most piercing racism. Looking to trade the man for the safety of his family, James tells him “You are going to die tonight. You can either die like a man and walk outside, or you can die like a coward and take my family with you.” That a black man’s life must be sacrificed for the safety of a rich white family is certainly among the most prevailing lies of our country, a wound sliced open during centuries of slavery and left to grow gangrenous as it sat untreated. The gaslighting in his comment, how the man “can die like a coward” for not willingly accepting his place in society as a “pig” for slaughter, drives the moment over the veil. Although these racial dynamics are more fully explored in other horror films, notably last year’s Get Out, the exploration of race in The Purge stands as the film’s most pertinent statement.
Despite these moments, however, the first Purge film felt like it left its best ideas on the table. Working on a $3 million budget, the movie promised us mayhem in the streets but turned out to be a single-location home invasion thriller. Today, with two sequels offer us a wider look at this universe and the first movie has retroactively improved, serving as an effective capsule story about rich people trapped in the labyrinth of their own hubristic McMansion.
In the next film of the series, The Purge: Anarchy, we do however see the streets. Working with a larger budget, DeMonaco is able to have more fun with his concept and craft an Escape from New York homage that continues to layer its class consciousness into the story threads. In Anarchy, the poor sell themselves to the rich to provide nest eggs for their children and innocents stolen off the streets are auctioned at VIP galas as hunting game. The buying and selling of human life underlines this thriller, while subversive militias provide the poor with an empowering message of radical resistance.
But it is Election Year, with its promotional tagline to “Keep America Great,” that gets into the crassness of the culture that would produce the current state of affairs and further explore the way minority communities are directly targeted by this law. Much like Anarchy, the film takes place on the streets of Washington, D.C., where an anti-Purge Senator and presidential candidate (Elizabeth Mitchell) has been targeted for assassination by the film’s Illuminati-esque New Founding Fathers. Her bodyguard Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) becomes her guide as she is hunted by white supremacist militias. Bearing confederate flag patches and iron crosses, these villains are true-to-life depictions of the modern Nazis that rioted in Charlottesville, Virginia a year after the film’s release.
What’s more important about Election Year is that we also see how the people respond. Laney Rucker (Betty Gabriel) spends the night in an armored ambulance picking up the wounded off the streets and transporting them to a Doctors Without Borders styled basement med center. Hodge returns, his mostly silent homeless character having joined ranks with the revolutionaries looking to end Purge Night.
In our current American landscape where asylum seekers are kept in cages and unjustified police slayings have undone our mirage of a rule of law, these movies are as relevant as ever, and rewatching them today they feel uniquely prescient about the state of the union. But it is the mass rebellion and true on-the-ground resistance (not the quibbling #Resistance) that has the power to be a force for true, positive change. In the time since I began writing this piece to its publication the Trump administration has been forced to back down from its child separation policy — opting instead to indefinitely detain immigrant families together as if that makes it any less wicked — and it is largely due to the outrage of a public that saw the image of Walmarts converted into concentration camps and took a true stand. I still pray that I don’t come back to this piece in two years time to find that the horrors have continued, that this administration takes detentions to the next extreme.
This is an election year, and as we watch the news we should ask ourselves how different our current condition is from the America of The Purge. The revolution doesn’t need to be an insurrection and positive change can come at the ballot box. We can treat the wounds. When we look back in hindsight on the horror films of the Trump era I believe The Purge will live as one of the most emblematic, not only because it is as vicious and unforgiving as the moment, but because its heroes are dogged, brave, diverse, and have a vision of the life they deserve to live.