The Politics of 'The Purge'

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by Ben Kenigsberg
June 7, 2013 4:01 PM
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"The Purge."

A week that's prompted a national outcry over secret government data-gathering might actually be a prime moment to open a dystopian home-invasion thriller. Good timing, wrong issue: James DeMonaco's "The Purge" imagines a society where unemployment and other social ills are dispelled, magically, by legalizing crime for 12 hours each year. The murderous free-for-alls that ensue invariably favor the wealthy, who are better-equipped to protect themselves. 

While critics seem lukewarm on the film's effectiveness at audience-goosing, there's also a suggestion that "The Purge" (unseen by me) neuters itself by muddling its social commentary. Is political incoherence, seemingly a given for mass-release movies, a product of the extreme oversight necessary to get these films funded? (Go too strong with your message, and you might -- gasp! -- alienate a potential ticket-buying demographic.) Or is murky topicality -- as several critics more intriguingly suggest -- a function of genre? It's hard for a film to trumpet peace and justice and at the same time deliver violent thrills. 

Here's a sampling of reviews discussing the politics of "The Purge:"

Manohla Dargis, New York Times:

"The movie doesn't directly point fingers at political conservatives, but Mr. DeMonaco deploys the satire about God 'n' Guns with such cumulative heavy handedness, that the target, so to speak, becomes obvious. (The emblem of the New Founding Fathers looks a lot like one for the National Rifle Association, complete with a gun-toting eagle.)"

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, A.V. Club

"This so-called Purge is far from an equal-opportunity massacre; for the most part, it consists of the wealthy and well-armed killing the poor for sport. The message is blunt, but cogent: Any system that claims that no protection is the same as equal protection is really a system for protecting the privileged... In order for the movie to completely succeed as a genre piece, it must fail as a political statement."

Alan Scherstuhl, Village Voice

"Its rote action climax also suggests, maybe without even meaning to, that in the hands of the heroic all that firepower is a force for good. As in so many Hollywood spectacles, the message and medium are at hopeless odds: This plea for peacefulness must contain the only thing the studios are reliably adept at showing us anymore -- dudes killing other dudes, kind of awesomely."

Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly

"DeMonaco, who wrote another Hawke siege movie, 2005's 'Assault on Precinct 13,' loads his satire with more political baggage than it can bear. And it dissolves into a typical home-invasion thriller whose big ideas about race, class, and social violence get trumped by its desire to hit genre beats."

Ed Gonzalez, Slant Magazine:  

"A film incapable of intelligently thinking out its inherently provocative scenario, 'The Purge' fails to understand that a society that would allow for a night of reprisal-free terror is one where liberalism is dead... The film's problems, then, are double-edged: 'The Purge' inextricably ties its gore to its allegory, but in refusing to make sense of the latter, the former is also made incomprehensible."

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