'Wouldn't it be great if we could get one free murder a year we could get away with?" This is the question director James DeMonaco's wife asked one fateful evening after they were almost killed by a drunk driver. Recounting the event with a chuckle and the safety of hindsight, DeMonaco assures us that his wife, who's a doctor, is actually a very good person and that she just said that in a fit of "anger and emotion". However, he admits the idea was to stick in his head for a long time.
The Purge Starring Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Max Burkholder. Directed by James DeMonaco.
Five years later he turned that thought into The Purge, a home-invasion thriller written and directed by DeMonaco which opened in Thailand this week. The film is set in a 2022 version of the United States where for one night every year all criminal activity becomes legal. Because of the annual 12-hour purge period, the nation's crime and unemployment rates hit an all-time low, and the homeless and unprotected are killed with impunity.
The film centres on one wealthy family on the eve of the annual purge. After the father James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) has just locked up his home with a security system his company developed especially for the purge period, the youngest son Charlie Sandin (Max Burkholder) decides to disarm it and let in a homeless stranger (Edwin Hodge) who is pleading for help. From then on their home becomes a target for "the purgers" who are coming after the hidden homeless man.
While what DeMonaco's wife said triggered the inspiration, the much-debated gun control issue together with his experience in France and Canada working on previous films also had quite an influence on turning the idea into a film.
"The relationships with guns and violence in these countries were so incredibly different than in America that I really started to contemplate and study," says DeMonaco. "I couldn't find a person in France who owned a gun and I can name every neighbour I have in America who owns many guns. Getting a gun in America is very easy.
"Something very terrible happened in our country, there was a recent massacre of all the children in Connecticut," DeMonaco adds. "Everyone has been talking about gun control for several months. It just keeps getting swept under the rug. The intention was just to put a mirror up to that and say: 'Look, we have to look at our society and say why are we so unique on the world stage? Why do we act this way? Why do we have to own guns?"'
As to why he chose a thriller to approach the issue, DeMonaco says that it's kind of a device that can move viewers and also a genre that he thinks will reach a wider audience.
"There was a very early version of the script that I wrote, it was not a thriller, it was kind of this absurd satire," explains DeMonaco. "The type of film that would maybe be played in one theatre, very independent-minded. Then we made a conscious decision: if we're trying to say something about society, we should let society see it. And how do you get a movie a wide release in America? You make a thriller, you make an action film, you make a horror film. The idea is absolutely horrifying so it kind of fits into this thriller/horror genre very well."
The film is a social allegory about the present, and people's relationship with guns and violence. Each character plays its own role in the allegory, and while Hawke's James Sandin character represents an apathetic side of American society that only cares about making money and protecting their own family, young Charlie represents the new generation who always questions society's common beliefs.
"I've always thought that Charlie was the moral centre of the film," says DeMonaco. "He was questioning everything: 'Why are we doing this?', 'Let's help the homeless man.' He was holding that line, never corrupted, never takes on any violence in the film."
As for the absurdity in the film, whether it's the main concept itself or how keen "the purgers" are about killing other people just to vent their anger or other negative emotions on total strangers, DeMonaco says it is an extension of how he feels about America's over-obsession about guns.
"There's an absurdity in this community of Americans that has accepted violence, almost as a religion. It's a very absurd thought that killing would become almost a religion where people feel they can become better people by releasing their hatred and anger. There's a fetishism about guns and I think in America a lot of people love their guns, there's almost a worship to it."
Even though there are quite a few explicit scenes, DeMonaco says that his purpose for the film as a social commentary is to show why violence is not the answer. "I want it to be a very anti-violence movie," says DeMonaco. "One of the last lines in the film is: 'No more killing tonight.' Everybody who partakes in violence in the film is met with a very tragic fate. I hope people see that it's never glorified that you win by violence. You always lose by violence. The secondary thing I want to play with is the whole idea of class in America, the treatment of the poor."
Asked if there's any chance America in 2022 will be like in his film, he quickly replies with a burst of laughter. "I surely hope not, my friend. I hope we don't get anywhere near it. Somehow we will go to the complete opposite way and all the guns are gone. That's my hope for the world."
About the author
- Writer: Kaona Pongpipat