Directed and written by: James Demonaco
The strength of a plot comes in three four factors: goals, stakes, pacing and complete character arcs. The genres that suffer from having clear goals and character arcs are normally action films, comedies and slashers. They’re more focused on the action set-pieces, on making the gags and scaring their audience respectively to focus too much on keeping their plot strong. So long as the premise is good enough to get bums on seats in the cinema, that’s all that matters. But it can make the film forgettable and empty.
The Purge is a dystopian slasher-thriller set in America. In order to combat the rising rates in poverty and crime, the New Founding Fathers made the decision to have a ‘Purge’ night once a year which allows Americans to commit crimes without ramifications until 7am the following morning.
Although it would be inaccurate to say that it’s a masterclass in screenwriting, it has a strong script that establishes character’s goals, the stakes of the reality that is presented to audiences and creates a sense of urgency for the plot to keep moving forward. All of this is meaningless without strong character arcs.
Our protagonist is James Sandin, portrayed by Ethan Hawke. His family is the focus of the narrative – his wife, Mary (Lena Headey), daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and son Charlie (Max Burkholder). All of the characters are introduced to the audience with basic character traits in order to help give them an insight into who they are. We immediately see that James is arrogant, obsessed with his job and works for a security company. Mary is more passive, there’s no insight into what she does for a job or whether she has one but her love for her family is there in the opening scenes. Zoey is having a secret relationship with older boyfriend, Henry, that James doesn’t approve of while Charlie is smart and more sympathetic.
When introducing a character, the screenwriter should provide them with a flaw that they will be forced to work on by the happenings of the narrative. This is their internal conflict which can also provide the internal stakes for the plot – the antagonist of the film often is the one to push them to resolve this. Let’s take a look at James – he’s egotistical and pushy with his children. He’s living in a James-bubble that revolves around him but he doesn’t see this as a problem. When the lockdown for the Purge begins, he reveals that he ‘doesn’t feel the need to’ get involved with purging, which hints that he could if he was pushed.
Enter our first antagonist – Henry, portrayed by Tony Oller. He is an embodiment of the internal stakes that is motivated by the external stakes. The writers present that there is a conflict between Henry, Zoe and James earlier in the film which pays off when Henry shoots at James in an effort to kill him. He can only do that by the external stakes of the Purge night. He helps move along James’ character arc as James was somewhat ignorant about taking part in the Purge but when he shoots Henry to kill him, the reality of the situation ways down on him and he is forced to put his arrogance to one side in order to protect his family.
Before Henry shoots at James, the next stake is introduced – the homeless stranger (Edwin Hodge) being let into the Sandin home by Charlie. The stake was initially external when Charlie saw him through the CCTV but became internal when he allowed him in. Now, the stranger is loose in the house without anyone knowing where he is.
Then, our second antagonist is introduced – the Polite Leader of the Masker Purgers, portrayed by Rhys Wakefield. He is the one that forces James to establish his goal for the film which is to find the homeless man in their home and hand him over to the Purgers. This happens about halfway through the runtime which is interesting as the goal of the film is normally introduced at the very beginning and there is a loose non-character-specific one for all the characters – to survive.
James is forced to put aside his character flaw in order to achieve his goal and save his family. In this moment, he isn’t only concerned with saving his own skin but saving everyone. However, this conflicts with another character’s goal – Charlie’s. Charlie’s goal is established before James’ is; to save the homeless man. Conflicting character goals is the perfect way to establish a conflict between the characters on screen. It also conflicts with the homeless man’s goal which is the survive.
But when he alters this goal, self-sacrificing himself by saying that the Sandins can hand him over to the Purgers in order to save his family, James’ goal is also altered in return. His new goal is to fight for his family and in turn, for the homeless man. He is moved by the man’s self-sacrifice and lack of arrogance that it addresses his character flaw which is arrogance. This is the culmination of James’ character arc so when he dies at the hands of the Polite Leader, it feels like a clean end for him – even if it is sad and subverts expectations for the audience for their protagonist to be killed.
This film isn’t without its flaws; the jump scares are unnecessary, the character arcs for Mary and Zoey are lacking and the motive for the final antagonist, Grace is wishy-washy at best. But we’ll talk about the antagonists another day. In terms of character creation, James Sandin is a developed character that goes through a character arc which is lead by his goals so Demonaco should be commended for it.
What do you think of The Purge? I’d like to write about the antagonists in this film so if you’d like to see an essay on that then please be sure to comment. Follow for more film analyses and reviews.