Ahhhh, election year. This year, Americans get to see an irascible, iridescent orange man with floppy straw hair standing behind a podium spewing vitriol and grandiosity while waving (rumor has it) little sausage fingers. And his harlequin fantasies of “having them” build a wall to “protect” our border (somehow, “we’re not gonna build it, they’re gonna build it,” he asserts) and banning over one billion members of a major, 1,406-year-old religion from entering our country, while punishing women who seek abortions, might make some wonder, what will he think of next? There are myriad possibilities. While I don’t think what I’m about to suggest would actually happen, policy ideas like his make me imagine, wildly, that anything could happen. Perhaps he would legalize one night a year for murder, to let resentful Americans release their stores of seething hatred. And if that were to happen, we’ll have Ethan Hawke and The Purge series to thank, a semi-dystopian horror series about what would happen if all crime was legal for one night of the year, including the big “Red Rum.”
The Purge takes place in America in 2022. Unemployment has dipped below 1% and crime is virtually obsolete, thanks to the “new” founding fathers who have legalized all crime, including murder, for one night a year, allegedly as an outlet for mankind’s “inherently” violent tendencies. Security system salesman James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) lives in an opulent neighborhood with his wife Mary (Lena Headey), and his kids, Zoe and Charlie (Adelaide Kane and Max Burkholder). Their top-of-the-line security system in their ritzy neighborhood makes James and Mary blasé about the yearly purge; they support it without participating in it and rest easy on purge night, with the knowledge that even on that bloody night, bad things don’t usually happen in their neighborhood. Then, their social justice-minded teenage son, Max, lets in a homeless stranger who’s being hunted by a group of purgers on purge night, and intensity increases. To save their own lives and the lives of their children, the purgers demand James and Mary turn over the homeless man (who they call “homeless swine” and deem unworthy to live). James is ultimately quick to take this step, but has a change of heart, and arms his family for a fight instead.
There are other plot elements to The Purge, but that’s the film’s basic premise. This is the second time I’ve seen the film, and the first time I saw it I was really fascinated. The presumed rightness of the purge seems woven into the tapestry of American society, and people support its existence with the same unquestioning veneration that many people today support the legalization of mass murder weapons (as in, not just guns, but really bad guns for anyone who wants to have them, suspected terrorists included). Characters’ dogmatic reverence for this stomach-turning tradition gives the film an air of plausibility. One has trouble imagining near-unanimous support for such legislation in reality, but as I watched the film, I found it believable that a large sect of society supported the movement, constantly citing the benefits of the night to the country’s stability. After all, as the movie’s quick to note, the wealthy who live in safer neighborhoods tend to be less affected and have the money to buy expensive security systems and weapons, which, predictably, leaves the poor and homeless as bait. And in this film, they’re deemed dispensable bait for the benefit of the whole, in a coldly utilitarian manner that I’d bet flies in the face of John Stuart Mill’s intent when he proposed utilitarianism as an ethical guideline.
And if support for The Purge is partly believable – indeed, Michael informs me that in conversation he’s heard people support the idea, to which I say #scaryshit – what I have the most trouble grappling with is the likelihood that a significant sect of society would actually “take advantage” of the opportunity to purge (for lack of less horrifying words). The film seems to rest on the assumption that the reason most of us don’t stick a knife in the chest of anyone who angers us is because it’s illegal, not because it’s a morally wrong, incredibly troubling and emotionally scarring experience. I think Americans can be materialistic and selfish (and I’m not exempting myself from that categorization) so if crime were legalized for a night, we’d probably see jewelry stores and liquor stores raided. Some people would stock up on drugs and dealers would probably advertise their heroin on the street corner. After all, as human beings, we are deeply flawed and imperfect. But I have trouble accepting the premise that most of us would murder if we could. My conscience goes in hyper-drive if I tell a white lie, and while I’m kind of a guilty person, I don’t think I’m a rare exception. I truly believe most people don’t have a murderous bone in their bodies.
Which leads me to another point: there are different types of crimes, and most crimes involve motives. There are crimes of genuine need (selling drugs to buy groceries for your family, buying drugs because you’re dope sick), crimes of selfishness (robbing banks because you don’t want to have to work another day in your life) and crimes of malice, the worst but the rarest form of a crime, usually committed by someone who has a genuine, sick, twisted degree of rage for another human being or group of human beings. I think most human beings are capable of committing crime in instances of genuine need, and a decent portion of human beings, if given a night to do so without repercussions, would commit selfish crimes. But very few would kill out of malice or hate, and fewer, still, would kill a stranger with no reason or motivation. I don’t put spurious murder past everyone, but I put it past most people. I think you could round up the country’s most despicable, miserable human beings and find that most of them aren’t morally bankrupt enough to kill for the sake of killing. (Although if The Purge were a thing, I’d be very scared for anyone who doesn’t “look white” and might be mistaken for a follower of Islam, let alone be a follower of Islam.)
And the film seems vaguely cognizant of its own unlikelihood. After all, the main characters, the ones we get to know, are a nice family who protects themselves and don’t participate in The Purge. And the gang of purgers who seek to kill the fleeing homeless men – as represented by a young blonde punk – come across as a band of elitist assholes. It is logical that, while we see many instances of “purging” in the film, the main characters don’t purge, because we couldn’t relate to them if they did. And we couldn’t relate to them because our instinct is to say we would never purge. I don’t think this reaction is false self-righteousness; the vast majority of us wouldn’t kill if we were “allowed” for a night.
There is also the troubling assumption in the film that somehow killing your enemy (if, indeed, you know the person you’re trying to kill) cleanses your soul by helping you release your rage. And to be fair, while characters express this mindset, I think the film calls us to critique it. As someone who’s had to “cleanse” her spirit to get sober from alcohol, I laughed when I heard the word “cleanse” associated with killing. Cleansing your soul, as I’ve come to understand it, means connecting with a Higher Power and praying for people who you’re angry at, while examining why you’re angry at them and what part of you they’re affecting, what’s really wrong with yourself. There is nothing “cleansing” about killing because it’s not an act that ameliorates hatred; it’s the ultimate culmination of hatred, the epitome of malice. You can’t eliminate hate by expressing your hate of a person through violence. Killing the person makes you more hateful, and, probably, more likely to commit hateful acts with ease. But then, this point seems so self-evident it’s almost laughable that I’m making it. I think the film’s point in presenting killing as a mechanism for “cleansing your hate” is to depict how corrupt, degraded, and irrational society has become from the purge, even if it is one night a year. At least, I hope that’s what it’s implying.
And still, suspension of disbelief is not hugely hard for me in most horror movies. Does that seem paradoxical? It need not be. While I don’t believe that we’d all run around with axes, guns, and knives – with the intent to kill – if given a “free” night to do so, my discomfort with the film’s statement about human nature didn’t disrupt my ability to enjoy the film. I can write a mini-treatise on why I think most human beings simply wouldn’t kill, with or without legal repercussions, but I am still hugely intrigued by this film’s premise. What’s more, I like the dystopian vibe, the sense that humanity is trying to create a utopia through dystopian measures. And of course, I had to see it one more time before Purge: Election Year comes out this weekend. But, thankfully, I can watch Election Year with enough faith in human nature to think that a purge night is not likely to happen, whether or not our country bans Islam and builds a ridiculous wall.