This Fourth of July will see the fourth entry in the financially successful dystopic franchise “The Purge,” entitled “The First Purge.” It’s a pretty good bet this latest installment will fail on a key aim of the film makers: The demonize guns and weapons. In fact, the series does the opposite.
The premise of the series is that the United States gets a new government called the NFFA: New Founding Fathers of America. Poverty and violence had reached intolerable levels, and this new regime institutes a single policy that apparently fixes everything: Every year on March 21 to 22 from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., nothing is illegal.
The idea is that human frustration gets bottled up and needs a night to completely “unleash the beast.” The resulting psychological cleansing has allegedly solved every social evil. Of course each film takes place during this macabre 12-hour period, so they’re full of violence, action, and moral chaos.
Movie producer Jason Blum told Bill Simmons about the series’ origin and meaning:
James DeMonaco, who wrote and directed all three movies…he and his wife are driving on some throughway in New York someone cut him off and he’s like, ‘I want to kill that guy,’ and the other one [spouse in the car] said ‘What if you could?’ And that was the birth of ‘The Purge.’
…’The Purge’ is really a movie about gun control gone haywire in the United States. The French translation of the title is ‘America’s Nightmare’ … In Europe and in other countries where they have a different relationship to guns they really understand ‘The Purge’ 100 percent as a cautionary tale. In this country, about half of the audience gets it as a cautionary tale and the other half the audience thinks ‘The Purge’ might not be a bad idea, which is a little disturbing.
At this point it seems Blum will eventually be recognized alongside Hollywood giants like David O. Selznick. He’s like a happy medium between the extremes of Walt Disney and Roger Corman. He makes a lot of money on shoestring budgets by focusing on quality, creativity, and originality. But like those legendary figures, when Thetis dipped them into the river she left one area of their bodies uncovered: the Achilles heel of political reality.
Recently Blum told Variety: “If every time there’s a shooting in the United States, the government’s answer is put more guns in people’s hands then what ‘The Purge’ is showing doesn’t seem all that crazy. Donald Trump keeps saying ‘give teachers guns.’ I could see him saying, ‘let people shoot whoever they want to for 12 hours a year.’”
It’s been known for a while that the latest film in the series would go after the Trump administration and the “deplorables” who made it possible. The marketing gets its point across with no frills: A white background and a solitary red cap. The words ‘The First Purge” sit where the words “Make America Great Again” should be. Not exactly subtle.
As Blum made clear, however, this series was always political. Those elements are mostly muted in the first film. It works very well as a piece of dystopia. It’s also a tightly told home invasion film, one of the more underdeveloped subgenres of horror.
It focuses on a relatable family unit centered on Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey as a happily married affluent suburban couple forced into a night of violence. Hawke’s character sells security systems and has gotten rich off protecting people from the purge night. His home is a veritable fortress, but the neighbors aren’t happy about how he’s profited from their protection. The climax has the neighborhood brutally turn on them in what is assuredly intended to be some biting critique of bourgeois values.
This film is clearly loaded with cultural and psychological symbolism for our times. The isolation Americans increasingly experience, due in part to the lack of necessity to even leave our homes, is palpable. The film actually works much more as a commentary on the breakdown of religion and the mediating institutions of Tocquevillian America than it does the Second Amendment. Unfortunately, the Left continually seems ignorant of these fundamental parts of classical liberalism and instead continually falls into Marxist tropes.
This is most powerfully highlighted in the second film, “The Purge Anarchy,” because a French Revolution-style Marxist rebellion takes place on this purge night. It’s supposed to be this critique of gun culture, but throughout the entire series the bad guys with guns are always stopped by good guys with guns. So the commentary on so-called “gun culture” falls miserably flat.
If the NFFA were truly the tyrannical fascists they’re made out to be, the first thing they would have done would be to disarm the populace. That’s what fascist and communist regimes do, to prevent the very circumstances that occur within the narrative of the second Purge film. So in a bizarrely Marxist manner, the second film actually makes an argument for Second Amendment as a guard against tyranny.
As a conservative, I found this both intellectually obnoxious and slightly hilarious. But as a cinephile it’s an utter travesty. If they were politically consistent, then the populace would have been disarmed and the franchise would have been radically different, something more akin to Dark Age warfare. This would have made for much moodier films and given them space to deal with more profound, less sanitized issues concerning violence and the darkness of the human heart.
But of course the symbolism and supposed critique of “gun culture” would be completely lost. Sadly the series fell prey to the message film fallacy, because the sermon that director James DeMonaco wanted to preach got in the way of the film he should have made.
Check out two other horror films that are superior to the Purge franchise in virtually every way: “You’re Next” and “The Green Room.” “The Green Room” is a landmark of contemporary cinema deserving of a wider audience and its own article.
“You’re Next” was made on an even tighter budget than the original Purge and eclipses it on every level except for box office return. “You’re Next” was completed in 2011 but not distributed until 2013, so “The Purge” beat it to the box office by two months. The films are similar enough that “You’re Next” seemed like a rip off.
Guns don’t really feature in “You’re Next.” The antagonists and protagonists are forced to engage with found weapons such as hammers against aggressors with crossbows. But that film also isn’t really trying to preach any message. There are some satirical elements connected to the traditional family, and Sharni Vinson’s wonderful performance is meant to have feminist resonance. Ultimately if it has any greater meaning, it’s as a commentary on these kinds of horror films by flipping expectations.
“The Purge” was handicapped by its anti-gun message, which has caused each Purge installment to become increasingly cartoonish in an attempt to satirize “gun culture.” The third film even features a midnight Mass where a priest orgastically kills a vagrant in front of an entire church of elites. It feels like it should be a joke, like some kind of perverse Monty Python sketch.
Yet while it is supposed to be satire the filmmakers certainly are not joking, which is the greatest irony of all. Having not seen the newest one I can’t comment on it yet, but given the way the series is headed “The First Purge” will be even sillier and therefore easier to ignore.