We hear a lot about catharsis these days, be it the virtual mayhem of video games or primal scream therapy sessions. Getting it out of your system is a good thing, we're told. But what if catharsis became a legitimate—legal—excuse to kill?
"I could just kill 'em!"
Some of us might exasperatedly think that about our bosses, our employees, the guy who cuts us off on the highway, sometimes even our own family members. We don't really mean it, of course. Not really. But what if we did? And what if society—our government—gave us permission to act on any sociopathic tendency we might have?
Just ask James Sandin. Because that's reality in his world. Something called the Purge was instituted several years ago by America's "new founding fathers" as a way to temporarily rid ourselves of our most forbidden, antisocial desires. Deep down, we're all animals, they say: We need a night of primal release where we can go anywhere and do anything. And so for 12 hours every year, the rule of law is suspended and the primal floodgates are opened. People can assault, rob, beat and kill with no worry of repercussion. For one night, we can be the beasts we are.
If you don't want to kill, that's fine—but you better hunker down somewhere safe, because your neighbor just might.
No surprise, then, that the Purge sparked tremendous growth in high-tech security systems for the well-to-do. James sells such systems. And as a result, he's made a nice, comfortable life for his family: huge house, luxury cars, maybe even a boat one day. And, of course, it's all protected by one of those state-of-the-art security systems he sells. On Purge Night, all he has to do is push a button, and bam! His whole hacienda is protected by candid cameras and metal barriers.
"We'll be fine, like always," he tells his loved ones. The Purge is like any other night … only with more screams outside.
Thus, on Purge Night 2022, the Sandins are locked down tight. And as James does some paperwork, wife Mary runs on the treadmill, teen daughter Zoey secretly makes out with her boyfriend, and sensitive son Charlie checks out the home's monitoring screens.
He sees someone in trouble outside. An injured man, calling—pleading—for help.
The Purge in The Purge is reputed to be a societal good—the reason why the country is in such great shape. "The denial of our true selves is the problem," a doctor says during an interview. Sometimes, he suggests, we all need to just cut loose and kill a little. Opponents suggest that the whole "catharsis" theory is really a ruse, though, that this yearly night of mayhem may simply be a way to rid society of much of its poor and unproductive populace. Troublemakers kill one another, they say, and the homeless and jobless are slaughtered like sheep.
Either way, the morality behind the Purge is clearly problematic. But the movie is trying to make exactly that point. And even though most of the Sandin family supports the Purge at first (every patriotic American, it's suggested, does), they come face-to-face with its true horror when it slides into their living room.
It slides inside when Charlie lets the injured man in. And when a group of young would-be-killers demand that the Sandins boot him back outside or face fatal consequences, James at first wants to acquiesce. "It's him or us, Charlie," he says. But one by one, the horror of what they're about to do hits each family member. "Look at this man!" Mary hollers at James. "Look at what we're doing to him!" James does, and has a change of heart: They can't send a guy out to be brutally murdered, he decides. Instead, they'll have to fight off the invaders as best they can—even if it means they'll all die in the process.
It's the right decision, though a difficult one. And in the midst of that hard choice, James fights admirably to protect his wife and children. Of course Charlie did the humane, Good Samaritan thing when he initially disarms the system and brings the hurt guy inside. And aside from the consideration that he disobeyed his dad by doing so, he can't really be blamed for their present crisis. And that stranger does his part, too. Most everyone trapped in that lovely house, in fact, chooses to save lives—even as the movie's conceit also forces them to take more than their fair share.
The Purge is spoken of as a patriotic duty, and participants talk about it in the reverent tones of a religious rite. "Your soul has been cleansed," one assailant tells a dying man, kissing him on the head like a priest. "We'll be better people," someone else solemnly intones later, "and you will sacrifice yourselves to make the world a better place."
It would also seem that America's current leaders are treated as quasi-divine figures. "Bless our new founding fathers," we hear a television announcer say (a petition repeated by others). The announcer concludes with, "May God be with you all." And when several Purge participants prepare to kill innocents, they recite, in unison, something that straddles the line between a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance.
Underage Zoey is sexually involved with her 18-year-old boyfriend Henry. We see the two of them kiss often and make out twice, once in Zoey's bedroom as Henry lies between the girl's legs, her blouse partly unbuttoned, revealing the bra underneath.
When assailants enter the house, one sees Zoey's picture and says she's "exquisite," asking his henchman to "save" her for him. Two assailants—both in female masks—mime a kiss in front of a video camera. Zoey jokes about penis sizes.
The movie opens with a cacophony of clips showcasing the atrocities committed during previous Purges. Most of the footage is shot with what appear to be stationary security cameras, lending an aura of authenticity to the events. We see people shot, knifed and brutally beaten—pummeled, kicked and smashed with a variety of implements. Desperate people are pulled off blood-stained walls. Bodies litter the ground.
Once the plot starts cranking away, the high body count careens from violent but PG-13-style takedowns to gory R-rated viscera. We see both living and dead bodies covered in blood. Someone's killed by an ax to the back. Someone else is stabbed in the gut, and we see the assailant slowly and painfully draw the knife out of its human sheath. Would-be killers have their heads pounded into antique pinball machines or repeatedly knocked against floors. A woman is bludgeoned with a gun, then has her face slammed into a table—breaking her nose. (Blood gushes lazily down her cheeks and over her mouth.)
James, in an effort to make his injured "guest" more compliant to being sent outside, tells his wife to jab a letter opener into one of the man's open wounds—a bloody, grotesque gash on his leg. She does … twice, making the man scream in pain.
More generally, folks are threatened with knives and guns. Gunfights lead to fatalities. A couple of people get knocked out. Barricades are roughly pulled down. Assailants lovingly fondle machetes. We hear, after the Purge, an announcer say that it was among the most "successful" ever.
Crude or Profane Language
Five f-words. A half-dozen uses of "h‑‑‑" and two or three uses of "b‑‑ch." God's name is misused six or eight times (once with "d‑‑n"), and Jesus' name is abused four.
Drug and Alcohol Content
James and his wife drink wine.
Other Negative Elements
Attackers call the injured man "homeless swine," suggesting that his only reason to live is to serve as Purge prey.
When Zoey tells Henry she loves him, he tells her they should come up with their own thing to express their affection: The word love, he says, is just so overused. He tells her to "growl" instead. And she does.
This quick scene seems to foretell the movie's central theme: the conflict between our higher and lower natures, human reason and animal inclinations, love and growl. And through this horrific philosophical exercise, we also see a nod to an imperfect understanding of how our idea of right and wrong doesn't come from us, but from above.
This is a pretty big theme for the action/horror movie genre.
If we are all essentially creatures of accident—products of evolution unguided by any intelligence—strictures of what's right and wrong are, by definition, man-made. And, conversely, any notion of a higher sense of justice is dependent on the existence of a Being greater than us, of a God who not just created us, but cares what we do.
The world we encounter in The Purge has attempted to set aside any morality rooted in God's presence. We need not abide by any higher law, the new founding fathers say. The law is ours to make. We are animals. Therefore we must allow ourselves to act like animals. (Not that animals are given to going on unchecked, unnecessary killing sprees. But that's another point entirely.)
But the Purge seems to be working in this concocted world. Whether through its bloody catharsis or because it eliminates society's weak and sick and unproductive, it's credited for pushing the unemployment rate to 1% and crime rates (at least for the other 364 days of the year) to all-time lows. So if "right" and "wrong" are truly man-made paradigms, who can argue with the success of the Purge?
Well. The Sandin family, for starters. Even though it's the law of the land, the Purge is wrong. They know that. And we know that.
[Spoiler Warning] In the end, Mary is given a chance to destroy her would-be destroyers—to kill the people who came to kill her and her family. She's still safely in the 12 hours of the Purge and has the power to wreak vengeance on some truly awful characters without fear of repercussion. She rejects the opportunity—much to the chagrin of many folks in the screening I attended.
"We are going to play the rest of this night out in m‑‑‑‑‑f‑‑‑ing peace," she says.
And with that, we're forced out of the philosophical realm and into the issue of content. The Purge's themes are indeed compelling, raising the story above the splatterfest riffraff. But, really, these same themes could be just as effectively dealt with (and maybe already have) in an episode of The Twilight Zone. You don't need the squirm-in-your-seat violence to tell this tale. You don't need the obscene language. You don't even need the time it takes (even though The Purge runs for less than 90 minutes).
The moviemakers could've taken a lesson from their own morality play: A little restraint goes a long way.