Musings from my desk

The Purge makes no sense The Purge is an American horror movie from 2013 starring Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey. It makes no sense.

2022-08-21 11:19:07 +0000 UTC

The Purge rests on a simple premise: the American legal system is the only thing preventing Americans from murdering each other freely, on a whim, all of the time.

If you already believe that premise, then this move is for you. If you have some follow-up questions, I’m sorry to say The Purge will do nothing to fulfill your curiosity.

The synopsis from the IMDB page for The Purge reads:

A wealthy family is held hostage for harboring the target of a murderous syndicate during the Purge, a 12-hour period in which any and all crime is legal.

But hey synopses are cheap so let’s get another take. Here’s the synopsis from HBO Max:

In a crime-ridden future America, the government has set aside one night a year where all criminal activity–including murder–is legal

Nice-n-simple. What’s not to love? Turns out, plenty.

This post may or may not contain spoilers, I haven’t decided yet and I’ll probably be too lazy to come back and edit this line to reflect the final state of the post.

The premise is absurd

Unless you yourself are a psychopathic murderer, you may find it difficult to believe that everybody you interact with on a daily basis is one step away from murdering you. Took too long crossing the street? Murder. Lost money in the stock market? Murder. Didn’t buy flowers for Valentine’s Day? Murder.

The Purge is built on this exact premise. The filmmakers seem to believe that the audience already believes that everybody is a murderer, and is ready to gleefully watch the carnage unfold if only that pesky legal system were suspended for a brief period each year. While I’d predict that the majority of horror movie watchers are indeed ready to gleefully watch carnage, I suspect that the majority of them also want a coherent premise for their films.

Why exactly do I find the premise of The Purge so absurd? I do not believe that most people have murderous instincts. Check out this list of why NOT to murder people - you’ll see that only 2 of the 10 reasons are due to legality! Generally speaking, most people’s beefs with other people do not cross the threshold of “must be resolved with murder”. It simply isn’t in your own best interest.

If most normal people are not itching to murder their friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues on a regular basis, then what else could lead to the dystopian version of reality that The Purge portrays? Well, probably nothing.

The Purge does ask some interesting questions about society’s hatred of poor people, but it fails to establish a believable connection between rich society’s general distaste for poorness, and wanting to murder every poor person you’ve ever seen.

In fact, despite the fact that rich people may indeed hate poor people, most rich people (unless they are hella dumb) also recognize that poor people are necessary for them to be rich in the first place. If our economic system was structured to compensate people appropriately for the labor they expend, we’d see that the gap between rich and poor would be much, much smaller than what we see today. Simply put, it isn’t possible to have an elite class without having an underclass - the former is predicated on the existence of the latter. So regardless of any actual hatred that is simmering among the elite classes in America, it (yet again) goes against their best interests to murder poor people even if the law allows it.

The Purge also places an unreasonable amount of weight on Americans’ supposed blood lust, regardless of one’s own willingness to participate in creating the mayhem upon which The Purge is built. During the annual purge, there are ostensibly “purge events” broadcast across the country, which the film suggests are abundantly consumed, even by those who choose to avoid violence themselves. While there are indeed some disturbing trends of glorifying violence in our society, it feels absurd to suggest that most people are ready, willing, and/or excited to watch people they know get violently murdered on camera, or commit the violent murdering themselves. How would you feel going to the next neighborhood BBQ and having to make small talk with your neighbor who you watched torture and kill your other neighbor? Seems like it would really stilt the conversation.

The premise upon which The Purge rests is nothing but absurd. People are not willing to freely murder each other; not for petty jealousy, not for class solidarity, not for fun. Without this premise, The Purge is just floating in air.

The requirement for suspension of disbelief is too substantial

Horror movies frequently require the viewer to suspend disbelief. Why, you may ask, am I so unwilling to suspend disbelief for The Purge?

I’m so happy you asked.

Most horror movies ask the viewer to suspend disbelief for one of two scenarios (or a combination of the two):

  1. A supernatural element exists which causes terror (e.g zombie virus, ghosts, vampires, etc)
  2. A person or small group of people are consumed by a combination of violent psychopathy and obsessive interest in a small group of people (typically the film’s protagonists)

Both of these premises make it easy to suspend disbelief. Supernatural elements are clear that this is not an accurate representation of reality, so its easy for the mind to switch into “fantasy mode” and accept the supernatural elements. Violent psychopaths make it easy to suspend disbelief because, in fact, violent psychopathy does exist in the wild, albeit very rarely. The combination of violent psychopathy and obsession with a small group of individuals is something that most people could imagine occurring in an extremely rare person(s). So, it is again easy to suspend disbelief because there is a part of our brains that recognizes it as plausible, if not exactly realistic in this specific depiction.

In contrast, The Purge requires a leap of faith that is easily 10x as large. The premise has absolutely no connection to reality. With an absurd premise, the motivation and behavior of every character - protagonists, antagonists, and side characters alike - is called into question. The Purge effectively fails at allowing the viewer to suspend disbelief. Without suspended disbelief, the events of the movie fail to form a cohesive narrative. Without a cohesive narrative, the movie ends up being nothing more than a scattered collection of loud noises and violence. Without a central theme to which your brain can attach meaning, the noises and violence in the film fail to achieve “scary” status.

Room for improvement

I do think The Purge could have potentially succeeded, had it made some fundamentally different choices. Let’s look at a few options that would have made it better.

Introduce a supernatural element that explains the pervasive violent psychopathy depicted in the movie

Since The Purge rests of the assumption that America is already consumed with widespread, violent psychopathy, the easiest way to make it scarier would be to explain the violent psychopathy. The easiest way to explain such a shocking and ubiquitous medical condition in the general population would be a supernatural element.

28 Days Later provides an archetype, in the form of a super-contagious virus that causes people to run really fast in order to catch and devour non-infected people. Why not modify this premise to account for the behavior of Americans during the annual purge? There could even be an easy conspiracy angle: perhaps the government is responsible for distributing a drug once a year that causes this behavior. This would also add meat to the sequels: they could explore the origins of the virus, or the governmental conspiracy to drug their citizens into a violent frenzy.

Set the film in a different society/culture/timeline that is not identical to the present day

The Purge was released in 2013. Remarkably, the writers set the movie in 2021[1], which indicates that the writers themselves believe this to be a reasonable depiction of modern America.

Instead of setting it in the modern day (which falls prey to all the criticisms outlined in this post), why not set it more significantly in the future, or in an alternative dystopian past? The Hunger Games provides an archetype, by setting the story in a substantially futuristic society. The Hunger Games rests on a similarly absurd premise - that people are willing to accept ritualistic child sacrifice in the name of Law And Order - but it allows the viewer to suspend disbelief by setting the film in a substantially different/futuristic/dystopian society. Since we cannot possibly know all the history that led to the creation of this society, it allows the viewer to just “go with it” and enjoy the premise as its presented to us.

The Purge could easily have just added a century to their timestamps and instantly improved the believability[2] of the film. Who knows what will take place in the next century to increase the country’s appetite for murder?

Alternatively, The Purge could have placed the movie in some alternative past, where there is some believable basis for the behavior shown in the film. Either of these are easy choices that would have greatly improved the viewing experience.

Provide more backstory

The Purge attempts to “explain” the state of affairs in the movie with a wildly short description that is devoid of all meaningful detail. Their “explanation” basically boils down to

Things were pretty bad. Which things? All the things! New government came in. How? Who cares! New government says “fuck it, murder at will. But only when we tell you to!”

Spending an additional 10 minutes providing some plausible backstory would have paid massive dividends in the film’s impact. The film’s entire runtime is only 1 hour and 25 minutes. Adding 10 minutes would bring us just over an hour and a half - a totally reasonable length for a modern feature horror film! When the entire impact of the film rests of the decision to explain (or not) critical backstory, my opinion is that you should opt to explain.


I didn’t like The Purge.

[1] How did I come up with this year? The opening credits show “purge events” from previous years, and the last timestamp (that I remember seeing) was from 2020. The opening credits gave the impression that they were sequentially building from past to present (they also showed clips from 2019, just prior to the 2020 clips), so it would follow that the annual purge depicted in the movie is from the next sequential year, 2021.

[2] My computer doesn’t seem to think “believability” is a word. Who is right: me or the machine?

[3] Lest you think I’m lazy, Hashnode apparently doesn’t support Markdown syntax in the title and subtitle elements. I did skip the italics on the title, it simply wasn’t allowed!