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10 Years Later, The Purge Feels Even More Brutal - Stream It Now on Peacock
Let's take a look back at the beginning of James DeMonaco's high-concept horror franchise.
Ten years ago this week, The Purge (now streaming on Peacock!) arrived and promptly caught fire with audiences, launching a franchise that delivered five films and a TV series all in less than a decade, with a potential sixth installment still to come. The brainchild of writer/director James DeMonaco, it's a story that combined high-concept dystopian worldbuilding with a tight focus on a tense standoff centered on one family. Throw in some great actors and a couple of very memorable kills, and it's no wonder DeMonaco had a horror hit on his hands.
And of course, time has been very kind to The Purge and its assorted sequels and prequels. "The Purge" has become something of a dark joke for people discussing the callousness and brutality of certain government actions, and the past decade's parade of violence, disease, and inequality has certainly helped bolster the case that even if The Purge is not and will not be real, there are at least a few people in America who'd like it to be.
It would be easy to write that kind of relevance off as the success of the idea of The Purge rather than the film itself, since after all it received mixed reviews upon release back in 2013. But looking back at the film now, there's more to it than just a good concept that's easy for American popular culture to latch onto. That concept is there, of course, but lurking within this film is the seed of something even more primal than its hook, something DeMonaco and company achieve through a story that only reveals as much as it has to about the world surrounding its central narrative, launching not just a fertile little world of darkness in our brains, but in the sequels that would follow.
The story of The Purge is so straightforward that you probably know it even if you've never seen the movie, but just in case: The film is set in 2022, in an alternate reality in which the past several years have featured the Annual Purge, a 12-hour period each year in which all crime is legal in the United States. As a result, crime is down, unemployment is up, and the country's wealthiest citizens don't mind the violence much, because they can just hole up in their houses behind state-of-the-art security systems and wait out the night.
Why The Purge may just be more brutal now than upon release
Among these citizens are the Sandin family, led by security tycoon patriarch James (Ethan Hawke) and loving mother Mary (Lena Headey). James is the guy who literally designed the latest and greatest in home security, so he's not worried about The Purge, even if his son Charlie (Max Burkholder) has recently become very aware of the violence thanks to a lesson at his school. As the family locks down for the 2022 Purge Night, everything seems to be normal, until Henry sees a homeless man running wounded through the streets, and lets him into the house. This prompts a gang of young Purgers led by a polite young rich kid (Rhys Wakefield) to turn up at the Sandins' door, demanding the "swine" they'd planned to kill, or else they'll tear down the family's security system and kill them too.
The themes at work in The Purge
So, what we have here is part dystopian action movie, part home-invasion horror film, and both parts work in concert to deliver something akin to a brutal morality play in which the Sandins — who've always politely abstained from Purge Night despite publicly supporting it — must make hard choices for the protection of their home and each other. At first glance, you definitely recognize a lot of the ingredients at work in this story, from the income inequality brought to the surface by The Purge to the Old Money vs. New Money fight that emerges in certain details of the Sandin family's past. Then there's the gun cabinet James keeps packed with weapons "just in case," the youths who turn ruthless as Purge Night sets in, the talk radio personalities arguing over the benefits of the annual event, and so much more. It all speaks to the violence lurking just beneath polite society, waiting to burst out as soon as we're taunted, as soon as we're pushed to our own personal edge. DeMonaco certainly didn't invent these ideas, but he plays with them very effectively, and he adds his own sense of depth to the story along the way.
Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey's performance in The Purge
That starts, at least for me, with Hawke and Headey, two actors who know how to throw themselves into a big conceptual playground and extract the maximum emotional emphasis along the way. We learn fairly early on that James and Mary Sandin are only recently rich and comfortable thanks to certain breakthroughs in James' career, and the film suggests throughout that they're only really tolerant of the whole Purge thing, not necessarily supportive of it. But of course, at less than 90 minutes, the film doesn't have a ton of time to devote to why they are the way they are. We only get hints, and the rest of it comes from the work done behind Hawke and Headey's eyes. They're both remarkable in the film, and pave the way for other actors to imbue Purge franchise characters with more depth in future installments.
Worldbuilding in The Purge
Then there's the worldbuilding, the sense that DeMonaco has figured all of this out, even if he's not telling us everything just yet. The film begins with glimpses of the violence of past Purges, and peppers in chatter about how this all developed and continues to develop, but it's too short to ever dig all that deeply into the "New Founding Fathers" who masterminded the whole plan. That arrives in future movies, and it's very interesting when DeMonaco finally rolls it all out, but here The Purge is simply accepted as a given for the characters just trying to survive it. That's both very effective in the context of this film, and the kind of thing that makes us, as an audience, want to dig deeper. It makes us want more, despite the brutality of the premise, which is its own interesting comment on the nature of the story.
So in hindsight, it's really no wonder that The Purge spawned such a fast-growing franchise that's blazed through the last decade. It's arguably even more brutal now than it was when it was released, and still speaks to something primal and dark in American culture, all while delivering a fun horror adventure.