Among the most famous stories in American Literature is Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” which first appeared in The New Yorker on June 26, 1948. It’s the horrifying tale of a small village comprising some 300 citizens who gather on the same day each year, draw names, and stone someone to death. No one really remembers the origin of the ritual, but they continue to do it annually just because it’s always been that way.
I couldn’t help thinking about this story as I watched “The Purge,” a disturbing,, albeit too predictable film about the United States in 2022, when the unemployment rate stands at just 1 percent, and crime is at all-time low. These impressive statistics are a result of The Purge, a program dreamed up by the Founding Fathers of “the nation reborn.” Here’s how The Purge works.
Every year on March 21 during the 12-hour period between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., all crime, including murder, is legal and will go unpunished. And the following is the announcement made over the airways following that maddening noise preceding broadcast tests.
“This is not a test. This is your emergency broadcast system announcing the commencement of the annual Purge sanctioned by the U.S. Government. Weapons of class IV and lower have been authorized for use during The Purge. All other weapons are restricted. Government officials of ranking 10 have been granted immunity from The Purge and shall not be harmed. Commencing at the siren, any and all crime, including murder will be legal for 12 continuous hours. Police, fire, and emergency medical services will be unavailable until tomorrow morning until 7 a.m., when The Purge concludes. Blessed be our new founding fathers and America, a nation reborn. May God be with you all.”
And what is the rationale behind this insanity? Here’s the way a psychologist on television explained it.
“History has proven this over and over again. We are inherently a violent species. Wars, genocide, murder. The denial of our true selves is the problem. The Purge not only contains societal violence to a single evening, but the countrywide catharsis creates psychological stability by letting us release the aggression we all have inside of us.”
Now one guy who has made a very nice living because of The Purge is James Sandin (Ethan Hawke), who lives in a spacious house with his wife, Mary (Lena Headey) and their two teen-aged children, Charlie (Max Burkholder) and the rebellious Zoey (Adelaide Kane). James has earned a small fortune selling home security systems to protect people during The Purge, and some of his neighbors are both jealous of his prosperity and angry about the way they believe he flaunts it.
The story opens when James arrives home from work just a little more than hour before The Purge begins and chronicles the nightmarish experience he and his family endure for the 12 hours that end up seeming like an eternity for them. Their problems begin because Charlie disables the lockdown system to save the life of a terrified African-American man who is being pursued by a band of “hunters” intent on killing him.
That’s all I will reveal about the plot because to tell you any more would ruin the copious suspense in this film that is part thriller and part social commentary. Each member of James’ family has a bit of a different take on The Purge, and as the story proceeds, they must deal with their individual perceptions of it as the events of a truly horrifying night unfold.
The film was written and directed by James DeMonaco, and in the production notes he explained the metamorphosis the main character goes through.
“James represents the apathy of the New America. He sells The Purge security systems to the rich, so he’s completely bought into The Purge propaganda; it’s served him well and made him very rich. But this attack on his home and family has made him rethink everything.”
Also in the production notes Hawke adds to his character’s analysis.
“What James does that’s subversive and interesting is that he sets the movie in a near future that’s readily identifiable. At its core it’s about how, in the name of providing for your family, you can turn a blind eye to your ethics. James Sandin sees himself as the perfect guy. Then, slowly, he finds out that he’s actually out of touch with everything; things are much more complicated than he was envisioning them.”
Now I am not going to say “The Purge” is one of the best thrillers I’ve ever seen, but is sure as hell isn’t the worst. In fact, I was completely surprised that it drew me into it so quickly, and, with the exception of the ending I could see coming from about the midway point, the film really held my attention.
You also won’t find any Academy Award worthy performances, but Hawke is consistently convincing in his part, and both young Burkholder and Kane are quite good in their respective roles as the children.
However, it’s Heady who steals the show with her portrayal of the terribly conflicted wife. From the time we meet her, we sense she is completely uncomfortable with the concept of The Purge, and as the film continues, it is she who ultimately evolves into the most admirable character of all. In the production notes she spoke about her character and about what a chilling concept the film presents.
“Mary starts out as this Stepford-esque wife, and she’s numb to her life. She has become apathetic with how the nation has changed and how she has or has not contributed to that. She is morally opposed to The Purge and does not participate but recognizes it as a necessary evil and has tried to accept it because it’s her family’s reality.
“That’s what (living in such a world) frightens me the most. Who knows what we would do if someone went to us and said, ‘There’s going to be no consequence for your actions.’ I think we most definitely need consequences!”
DeMonaco successfully allows the suspense to build very slowly throughout the film by first showing the Sandins preparing for another safe survival of The Purge encased in their ultra-secure home. But after Charlie admits the stranger into the home, the tension increases steadily until all hell literally breaks loose. Additionally the film presents an interesting concept to ponder: If you have a beef with someone, wait until the night of The Purge, hunt down your victim, and take whatever revenge you want. Despite some of the negative things I’ve heard about the film, it gets a surprising seven.
Just one more thing. As I said at the outset, this film made me think of “The Lottery,” but it also called to my mind Fred Goldman, the father of Ron Goldman, who of course was murdered along with Nicole Brown Simpson on June 12, 1994, in Los Angeles. For the nine-month duration of the O.J. Simpson trial I watched Goldman go through agony as he slowly began to realize that justice would not be served in this case. Then after deliberating for only 10 hours and 40 minutes, the jury (with in my humble opinion a combined IQ of 12) brought in verdict of not guilty. If something like “The Purge” had been in force then, I’m betting Fred Goldman would have gone hunting.