The Purge, a franchise that’s spawned four films over the past seven years and a television series, is one of those completely outrageous concepts that seems like it could happen in the real world. Before it was a cultural phenomenon, though, it all began with 2013's The Purge, starring Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey.
The gore and jumpscares in the original Purge are as close as I’m willing to get to anything resembling a horror movie. But looking back on the film today, was it as scary and eerily realistic as I remembered? To help me figure out if The Purge was, at the time of its release, a sign of impending doom or if the terror was just a figment of my imagination, I teamed up with Jezebel’s Ashley Reese, who hadn’t seen any of the Purge movies, for a flashback.
Shannon: So The Purge is about a new government program that allows all crime to be legal for one night a year, and it follows this one family trying to make it through the night. I don’t know why I wanted to watch it when it first came out—probably because I was dating someone who was into gory shit. I actually forgot that Ethan Hawke was in this movie, playing a security salesman. I also forgot that this whole movie takes place in 2022, which is right around the corner. Unemployment in this Purge world is at 1 percent L-O-FUCKING-L.
Ashley: Okay, my first reaction was “LOL this is in two years?”
Shannon: Lena Headey is in this movie, too? The Purge was ahead of its time. All the people in the first few minutes are wishing each other a safe night, and literally “hope you’re well/safe” is the only way to properly greet anyone in 2020. I don’t know if I’m terrified or impressed with the foreshadowing. Was there not enough room in the budget to get Lena a better wig, though?
Ashley: It is… really bad.
Shannon: Having seen all of the Purge movies, it’s notable that in this first one, the directors were trying to use race and money interchangeably, maybe because they were afraid of blatantly saying all of these white people just want to kill people of color. But as the franchise continued to grow they, I guess, felt more comfortable making the obvious race issue even more obvious.
Ashley: Yeah, there are definitely dog whistles, and I wondered if that was them winking at the way that the media often dog whistles about this stuff or if it’s the filmmakers not having a good grasp of this themselves. The poor, people considered “takers,” crime, and the like are definitely racialized in this country. That can’t be ignored.
Shannon: Ashley, is this California? These houses and these mountains are so nice.
Ashley: It does look like the motherland, yeah. UM, EXCUSE ME.
This lil freak. It’s like the demon sibling of the spider baby from Toy Story.
Why does the son of the main family look like a young Karl Lagerfeld.
Shannon: Charlie is really just Sid from Toy Story. “Eating dinner, no penises,” is a great line.
Ashley: A valid request!
Shannon: I’ve always found it very strange how white families in movies and TV never change into pajamas when they’re home. Like it’s dinner time, but the kids, Zoe and Charlie, are still wearing their outside clothes, which was a big no-no in my house.
Ashley: Yeah, like I’m changing into inside clothes the minute I get in! I’m not wearing jeans around the house, fuck that shit.
Shannon: If this family is so rich and has a perfect security system and they don’t Purge, then why even stay in the U.S. during purge week? It would make the most sense to at least send the kids away for their own protection.
Ashley: If I were rich during the Purge, I would simply leave the country while bitches slaughtered each other.
Shannon: Ashley, where is your perfect Purge vacation location?
Ashley: Hmmm, I would go vacation in like, the South of France or Greece or some shit. Maybe London if I wanted to chill in a city. I love Hong Kong, too.
Shannon: It just occurred to me that Zoe is played by Adelaide Kane, who was in another horrible show where she was crying over a guy named Henry. Talk about typecasting.
Ashley: How is she still in her school uniform when the Purge sirens already went off?
Shannon: My mom’s biggest pet peeve when I was young was that I took too long to get my uniform off when I got home from school; and it was because I was a lazy child, not because I wanted to spend all my time in that shit like Zoe seems to want.
Ashley: I just think this director has a fetish for school uniforms.
Ashley: I can’t unsee how bad the wig is now, Shannon.
Shannon: I guess they were trying to go for authentic suburban mom bob, but these bangs.
Ashley: OKAY THIS IS GETTING RIDICULOUS. WE GET IT SHE WEARS A UNIFORM.
Ashley: Charlie is the woke king, letting in the Black guy running from the white mob.
Shannon: You know what else I have questions about... Why is Charlie, aka young Karl Lagerfeld, obsessed with checking his vitals every day? He has this weird notebook that he breaks out during dinner with just pages and pages of notes on his heart rate. I get it’s a short movie, but a little backstory would have helped me care about any of these people.
Ashley: I knew Zoe’s boyfriend Henry wasn’t to be trusted. He has Scream dude energy.
Shannon: And how does Ethan Hawke’s character, a security salesman, not have a panic room specifically for the 1 percent of the time that the security system doesn’t work? Does the movie Panic Room not exist within this universe? Also, the lack of bulletproof glass, once the purgers start breaking into the house, is astounding.
Ashley: Rich people aren’t as smart as they think they are is the answer.
Shannon: I wonder how homeowners insurance works in this universe.
Ashley: I know it doesn’t protect against this shit.
Shannon: I didn’t catch this the first time I watched, but now it’s driving me crazy that the homeless man’s dog tags were prominently displayed in almost every scene he was in signaling that he’s a veteran, aka a good guy. But we never even get his name or his story or anything other than maybe three lines of dialogue.
Ashley: Oh, I didn’t even notice the tags! Laughing at the Black guy’s credit on IMDb:
You know, hearing “Polite Stranger’s” little purge speech on getting the Black guy back—because they were chasing after him, and he evaded their capture—got me thinking. The innuendo he used about homelessness without mentioning race maybe speaks to the fact that it’s a lot more socially acceptable to disparage someone on the basis of class than race, even when the two are often connected and coded. I’d like to think that’s what they’re doing rather than ignoring the race element. Maybe they’re just not insulting our intelligence and being heavy-handed about it.
Shannon: I guess if I really think about it, all of the innuendoes that lean more towards class than race may have been done on purpose for the sake of not alienating the audience right away? Like white people don’t enjoy going to the movies to be made to feel bad about themselves, and if the focus is on poor people and homeless people, then it’s something they can push to the side more easily than sitting through an hour-long murder movie that seems to scream white people are bad. But also the way that scary main purge man says “swine” so much feels like a thinly veiled N-word. Like: racial slurs were just a bridge too far but let’s shoot teenagers.
Ashley: I’m sorry, like... shoot him in the face.
At this point, the white mob keeps threatening to break into the house if the family doesn’t turn over the homeless Black guy, but what is the “equipment” they’re gonna use to fuck up the security system? A weapon of mass destruction?
He was like, “I’ll let her go when the night is over I’m not dyin’ tonight.”
Shannon: Despite the lack of backstory, they at least provided us with enough context to know that Ethan Hawke’s character is probably a bad father. I didn’t even think about the basement thing. This is too much house!
Ashley: The most unrealistic part of this movie is Ethan telling the kids to go to the basement. People in California don’t have basements like that. This movie makes the case against McMansions. I feel like half of their problems would be solved if there weren’t so many rooms.
Shannon: So finally, the twist. The people in the neighborhood hate the main family and decided to come together, kill the teenage purgers, and murder the family in a strange drawn out prayer circle.
Ashley: This is so deranged. These rich people need a fucking hobby.
Shannon: Murder is their hobby. And baking.
Ashley: Okay, so as expected, the homeless guy saves the day, and we get another moment of uniform porn with a hint of bondage. So what was interesting re our race/class convo, the group of bitter richies at the end included a token Black woman and an Asian guy. I mean, I think this definitely emphasizes that class interests can trump concern or care for race or how race and class often intersect. I can go in-depth about this but, ya know, this is The Purge so I’ll hold off, but I think that there’s a point to be made there. Allying with wealth and the whiteness that can often encompass it in a U.S. context is certainly a decision people make, consciously or not, and it was made by the tokens here.
Shannon: I didn’t want to mention this before you got to the end of the movie, but re race/class in the latest installment of the franchise—which is called The First Purge—they actually explain that the original reasoning behind the Purge was to basically thin out the population of poor people starting inexplicably in the projects of Staten Island. To ensure that people were purging, the poor were given $5,000 to wear contact lenses that would allow the people who coordinated the Purge to watch them on the night of. So this franchise either always knew that it wanted to be about race/class or caught onto its own ideas last minute and made a big turn in The Last Purge, which stars Marissa Tomei if you ever feel compelled to watch. Also stars hot Daniel from Insecure.
Ashley: Interesting. I’m sort of curious about the other Purge movies now. Going into this, I thought this would be a lot hokier than it actually was. It was pretty predictable and at times sort of silly. So many problems could have been solved if these kids just stayed in one damn room, but overall I enjoyed it enough.
But you know what? This jealous bitch shoulda got got. Lena smashing her head in didn’t satisfy me.
Shannon: I agree Lena should have killed someone. They shot her husband for fuck’s sake. But I also really hope that Lena had a life insurance policy on her husband that covered Purge murders and gets a fat payout and moves her kids to Europe.