So I just saw the 2013 film The Purge. Something tells me that I share an unpopular opinion given it’s low rating on Metacritic in that I actually really enjoyed this film. For those unfamiliar it’s a horror film set in the near future of a “reborn” America where violent crime is almost nonexistant, unemployment is at 1%, and everything’s peachy…except that for one night per year, for twelve hours, any and all crimes including murder are legal. The night is called the Purge and all are encouraged to participate. Fair warning, there’s going to be some spoilers here but it’s hard to talk about the film’s meaning and story without giving some of the plot away, sorry about that.
Overall, the film actually kind of reminds me of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” a short story where an idyllic town has a “lottery” where one member of the town pulls a black spot instead of a number and is stoned to death. Its simple horror regarding social pressure was chilling and like many stories before and since is a cautionary reminder of mob mentality leading otherwise normal people to do terrible things to each other.
In this way The Purge is actually very similar. The movie focuses on one family (who happens to sell security systems to rich families for this very occasion no less) during one such purge night. The main gist of the plot is that the family locks up for Purge night but the family’s boy sees a lone drifter on the street crying out for help and decides to temporarily disable the security system, allowing the stranger into their home before locking back up. Some neighborhood kids seeking to murder him show up at the door and demand that the family release the man into the kids’ custody to be murdered…or else they’re going to pull the doors off the house and kill everyone inside.
In reading the popular reviews online I think that people missed the obvious allegory for the modern American family unit and how its values are worth defending against popular social pressure. The family in question is a standard Norman Rockwell-esque family, complete with two children, a nice house in a well-to-do suburb, and there’s even some friendly neighborhood exchanges earlier on like you’d expect in the 1950’s. However the film maintains tension early on about the horror that’s brewing that somehow the rest of the nation is okay with. You can easily and quickly see the effects it’s having on the family’s children as the boy has taken to regularly monitoring his heart rate and there seems to be a quiet level of family tension, threatening to bring it apart at any moment.
The boy asks his parents why they don’t purge with everyone else and the clear discomfort in their answer about not “needing” to is a sign to everyone that really, deep down, the family knows that society’s values (murder) are not in sync with their family values (cooperation). Just because society okays something doesn’t immediately make it acceptable and it’s clear that the family has a higher standard of morality. Still, the parents try to hold onto it by trying to explain the night away which is not satisfactory to the boy, leading eventually to his sheltering of the drifter on the street.
At first the family decides to comply with the demands of their aggressors outside and hunt for the drifter in their home, hoping to turn him loose outside and save themselves. This is of course their attempt to continue to blend in with the world around them, to give in to social pressure. Eventually they discover it won’t work as it’s just too different from their own values and they decide to fight back. The father, who fell furthest from his family’s beliefs, is killed whilst bravely defending his home from society quite literally pouring in through the windows.
One of my favorite scenes to illustrate this is after he’s been stabbed and is bleeding to death he is surrounded by his family. He holds up a bloodied hand upon which clearly visible in the middle of the frame is his wedding ring, begging for mercy upon his family. It’s a beautiful and terrifying scene where the father is, quite literally, holding out the symbol of his family and all it means to him even at the cost of his own life to stop the onslaught of social views from destroying his home and all he believes in.
While it doesn’t end happily ever after for everyone (indeed, in a world where society is allowed to quite violently push its views on a family how can it end well?) the family survives and is rewarded for sticking to their views of kindness and cooperation and rejection of popular views. The story sticks together pretty well, the plot (at least to me) makes plenty of sense. There’s all sorts of little cues feeding the allegory such as how the father and mother’s stances and plans in a time of crisis show that they always knew sooner or later their way of life would be challenged and they would need to fight to defend it. The acting on all parts I found quite enjoyable, most notably that the children indeed feel like children and not just shorter adults as so many script writers do.
On my “dollar scale” where $20 is a brand new film I’d rate this film as worth $18. It’s not 100% perfect, but it’s really, really good, has FANTASTIC horror and tension throughout, and a great story about our personal values versus society’s values.