Although high concept films are often associated with lavish blockbuster spectacles, there’s something to be said for the way in which a B-movie franchise can take a powerful concept and really run with it through to its logical conclusion. Divested of the need to appease a mainstream critical apparatus – or to build any critical consensus – B-movies are often freer to pursue unusual and provocative concepts, even if they don’t necessarily receive the acclaim or recognition that they deserve at the time. So it is with James DeMonaco’s Purge Trilogy, a B-movie saga that makes up in conceptual acuity what it lacks in polished perfectionism and professionalism. For my money, these three films – The Purge, The Purge: Anarchy and The Purge: Election Year – represent possibly the most powerful cinematic satire that exists on contemporary conservative America, to the point where it’s almost impossible to believe that the events they’re depicting haven’t come true, especially in the wake of Trump’s election. As the first film in the franchise, as well as the only film to make a tentative stab at an A-picture – Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey top the cast, as opposed to the relatively unknown actors of the next two films – The Purge therefore plays as a statement of purpose, brimming with all the potential and prescience that the first instalment in such a powerful saga inevitably holds.
In part, the brilliance of the Purge premise lies in its simplicity, although that simplicity also immediately creates a whole host of other implications and possibilities that are by no means exhausted within the trilogy. As the opening credits inform us, the first film takes place in a slightly futuristic version of the United States – we open in the year 2017 – in which unemployment and crime is at an all time low and – most importantly – the country has entirely bounced back from the Global Financial Crisis to once again find itself a leader in the world economy. The catch is that this is due to a regime change in 2014 in which a new political party, named the Founding Fathers, instituted a public holiday called the Purge, in which all crime – including murder – is legal for a twelve hour period, from 7pm to 7am. While some commentators applaud the holiday for the way in which “countrywide catharsis creates psychological stability,” others see it as a way for the government to tacitly eliminate “the poor, the needy, the sick…the so-called non-contributors of society,” a process that becomes clearer in the later films. From the very beginning of the franchise, then, and even at this early stage, there are dissenting voices on television and social media, yet the very fact of the purge being incorporated into polite debate and democratic discussion – there are purge panels throughout the night for those who have the luxury from watching within a safe haven – is the most horrifying aspect of the whole event.
Nevertheless, that sense of dissent, let alone the events of the purge itself, feel quite remote from the world of this first film – at least initially – which takes place in its entirety within a high-end gated residential community. While we meet a few members of the community, the main focus is on the Sandin family – children Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and Charlie (Max Burkholder), mother Mary (Lena Headey) and father James (Ethan Hawke), a security specialist who has helped the community refit their home protection systems to be purge-proof. In that sense, the Sandins are one of the families to profit most directly from the purge, as well the unofficial leaders of the community, which can only maintain itself thanks to the security systems James sells. Adding to that sense of containment is the fact that, as in the second film, the narrative is confined to the purge itself, with a fairly short opening act depicting the preparations that are made as the Sandins prepare to bunk down for the night. As in all the films, the normality and domesticity of those final hours and minutes before purge commencement are unbelievably uncanny, and are drenched, here, in hokey, homey American hospitality, as friends and neighbours wish each other a happy evening and make plans for the following days and weeks. At the same time, the film is never too broad in its satire either, since, for all the procedural normality and patriotic rhetoric around the purge, some neighbours aren’t above throwing in a few references to the upcoming night in a passive-aggressive or casually threatening way either.
More generally, the gated community is a brilliant microcosm for depicting the purge, even or especially as it’s so far removed from the horrors that are taking place. Given that the night is an instrument for the rich and wealthy to maintain power, it makes sense that DeMonaco opens with a vision of the purge from the very top, as a brief and fleeting alteration of routine in a privileged suburban landscape that not only profits from it, but depends upon it. Unlike in the subsequent two films, there is no sense of the masses, or of ordinary people, precisely because it’s the purge that has removed them to such a notional distance in the first place. In fact, from the way James and Mary talk to their children it almost feels as if the purge is a mythical or historical event, rather than something with any direct bearing on the present as they experience it: “I know bad things happen to people tonight, but we’ll be fine, because we can afford security.” Yet there’s something unutterably eerie about the quietness and serenity of the housing estate in those early hours of the purge as it’s relayed through the Sandins’ security screens, a suspicion that although the film appears to be unfolding on the remote fringes of the purge we are also somehow in its epicentre, in the heartland of the 1% who make it all happen (or who at least profit enough for it to remain viable). Poised simultaneously at the periphery and the nerve centre of the purge, and decentring the purge in the process, it’s perhaps not surprising that the film subsists largely on remote and relayed perception, with the Sandins seeming to interact with each other through as many interfaces as they use to scope out and monitor the outside world.
In a way, that process of sitting out the night, watching and waiting for the impossible hint of the horrors unfolding beyond the community gates, would be eerie and haunting enough. Yet all that changes in a single split second encounter – or two encounters – that set the rest of the film in motion. Firstly, Zoey’s boyfriend Henry (Tony Oller) sneaks into the house and stays there until after lockdown, only revealing himself to Zoey when it is too late to go back outside and using the purge as a pretext to force James to accept him as a suitable match for his daughter. Secondly, a homeless African-American man – played by Edwin Hodge and only referred to in the credits as “The Stranger” – runs up the street and begs safe harbour in the house, leading to Charlie making an impulsive decision to let him in, despite James’ caution against any kind of communication with the outside world over the course of the evening. In a single moment, Zoey’s boyfriend reveals himself at the exact second The Stranger dashes in the front door, leading to a chaotic encounter in which Henry is killed and the Stranger and James wounded, although the extent to which any of the violence is intentional – that is, the extent to which the characters are purging – remains somewhat unclear, the first of many such moments across the series at which intentionality suddenly becomes eerily indiscernible under the unique conditions established by the holiday.
It’s at this point that The Purge settles into a brilliant riff on the classical home invasion drama, as all the thresholds that the purge is set up to protect – rich and poor, black and white, privileged and homeless – are condensed to the Sandin house, which seems to balloon and expand until it feels amorphous enough to satisfy any and every kind of purge imaginable. It’s only a matter of time, too, before the Stranger’s pursuers turn up, who, far from being framed as some kind of alien mass, horde or rabble, introduce themselves explicitly as privileged white folk, clad in private school and Ivy League uniforms, and appeal to the Sandins as kindred spirits to simply return their African-American captive so that their fellow one-percenters can purge in peace. That’s a pretty compelling demand, since as James points out, his security systems are by no means foolproof, but instead designed to work more as a deterrent, partly as a result of their considerable technology complexity, but more as a sign of formidable class privilege that utterly fails to intimidate these particular invaders, who appear to be of an even more elite caste than the Sandins. As with most home invasion dramas, then, the invasion is a bit of a decoy, and the horror stems more from the Sandins starting to recognise a permeability and porosity with the outside world – a complicity with the outside world – that was always there. In an incredibly elegant conceit, the Sandins find themselves forced to flush out the African-American “intruder” (while remaining inside themselves), but only in order to make peace with their own kind and the criminals that they really are.
Poised at that unbearable juncture, the coordinates of the Sandin house blur and limit the possibilities for individual action and agency, with each member of the family seeming to fight their own personal battle across the night, as they discover the irreducible isolation and mistrust that is the main atmosphere of the purge as a whole. In the half-light, their home comes to feel more and more like a vast, urban wasteland – a forerunner of the LA Downtown core that features so prominently in the second film – not least because of Charlie’s portable digital camera, which he places on a toy car and uses to traverse the house as if its some open-ended survival horror sandbox space, a twisted descendant of Resident Evil in which it’s the people fighting – the perspective you are forced to adopt – that is the true source of terror. Although that creates an environment of almost unbearable introspection and solipsism, it also means that, when violence does occur, it feels unbearably individual as well, suffused with all the visceral awkwardness of people who have never killed before – never even contemplated killing before, despite building their entire fortune and future on the purge.
In that sense, DeMonaco characterises the purge from the very outset as a white event and a study in white etiquette. Not only is there something ineffably aristocratic about the invaders, above and beyond their preppy Ivy League outfits and postures, but the stylised way they’re shot gradually makes them seem more at home in the Sandin house than the Sandins themselves, fixtures more than figures that blend seamlessly with the paranoid architecture of the gated community as if in some terrifying hallucination of neighborhood watch. That horror, for the Sandins, of discovering a family that belongs in their house more than they do – or a family that is somehow whiter than them – makes for one of the most elegant films about racism that I’ve seen in a long time, as we’re placed in a position of utter cognitive dissonance in which characters we “know” aren’t racist are also placed in scenarios and tableaux that we must recognise as racist. While the Sandins aren’t kicking the Stranger out of the house because he’s African-American they simultaneously are kicking him out of the house because he’s African-American, in a brilliant riff on every single film about American family life in which African-Americans are somehow presented as peripheral as an exception to the rule. As a result, the Sandins are only “not racist” in the same way that these films, the very films in which their presence feels natural, are “not racist,” allowing The Purge to query its conditions of existence in quite an extraordinary way, and every scene with the Stranger feels as if it is warping the fabric of the film before your very eyes.
As some critics have noted however, for all the conceptual ingenuity, The Purge is not always directed in the most assured manner. To me, however, that didn’t really matter, just because this feels more like the elaboration – or, to quote Steven Shaviro’s review of Paranormal Activity, a demonstration – of a concept than a narrative-oriented film. More specifically, several critics have pointed out the lack of sustained suspense – the timing is never quite right – and while I don’t disagree I also don’t really think that suspense is what the film is finally going for either. After all, suspense depends upon the apprehension of traversed thresholds, or at least the present-tense experience of traversed thresholds, but the profound continuity between the family and the invaders in this particular case seems to collapse all the house’s thresholds before the actual invasion begins, even if that’s something we only grasp in retrospect. As a result, there’s something belated and retrospective about The Purge’s suspense, which is perhaps why the action often feels like the distended, murky wind-down after a jump scare that has never really come. Instead, what ensues is a kind of stillborn or imploded suspense, in which tension certainly remains, but is divested from the catharsis that comes when a threshold is discernibly defended or relinquished (or when the threshold is itself discernible in the first place), giving this first film a serial potentiality that makes the existence of sequels a foregone conclusion, almost a necessity.
To that end, DeMonaco opts for a brilliantly truncated conclusion, in which the neighbours arrive on the scene to save the day, but only so that they can then kill the Sandins themselves, in order to satiate their jealousy of James’ infinitesimally greater wealth and status. In the process, it becomes clear – and clearer in the next two films – that the purge is not just about the 1% purging the 99% but, perhaps more importantly, the 1% purging itself, since a privileged few can only remain that way through the most ruthless competition. As a result, the film can’t quite really end, or can only end with the end of the purge itself, at which point DeMonaco dwells for a few moments on the subliminal shift back to normality and then cuts to credits as atavistic violence reframes itself as sociability once again and “purge talk and analysis” returns to the airwaves. Ending the film on that cusp of the purge – the climactic image is the Stranger walking back into the miasma – it’s not only clear that this has been the Sandins’ first purge, but that – despite even the death of James – they will get over it sooner rather than later, or at least sooner than the masses outside, with DeMonaco’s credit sequence fusing perfectly with the atrocity exhibitions of primetime news commentary to finally frame the purge as a study in hypernormalisation, a vision of how much people are prepared to accept when framed by the media in a particular way. In the second film, the nature of that acceptance is explored in more detail, at least insofar as it affects the populace at large, but it’s hard to think of much else during the final minutes of The Purge, a film every bit as draining and confronting as the culture it so mercilessly critiques.