Written by: James DeMonaco
Directed by: Gerard McMurray
Starring: Y'lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis, and Joivan Wade
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Witness the birth of an American tradition.
Franchises don’t tend to find their voice quite like the way The Purge has. Where so many series have conditioned us to expect diminishing returns, James DeMonaco’s ongoing dystopian bloodbath has reinvigorated itself with each outing, thanks in large part to a socio-political hellscape that’s only grown more bleak and indecorous since the first film’s debut in 2013. Back then, The Purge felt perhaps slightly absurd, yet sewed some resonant seeds of satirical and allegorical potential in its treatment of class warfare; with The First Purge, those seeds have flourished, allowing this franchise to completely embrace its incendiary exploitation movie potential. This is a righteously pissed off prequel that sheds any misgivings this franchise might have about poking its audience directly in the chest, forcing them to confront the hideous racism that’s woven into the very fabric of the American flag. What has been the subtext of previous entries becomes the text here, as The First Purge takes aim at a government that’s complicit in terrorizing its underprivileged minority citizens.
That’s the exact motivation behind the initial purge, here in its infancy as the recently elected New Founding Fathers of America look to conduct a trial run for what will become the infamous night of cathartic violence. They’ve chosen the low-income districts of Staten Island as a testing ground for the experiment, which will be broadcast live for the rest of the nation in the hopes of gaining support for a nationwide purge in the future. While some residents are eager to participate—thanks in part to the government’s financial incentives—most simply do what they can to survive the night. We observe a small cross-section of the population that includes drug kingpin Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), his ex-girlfriend and anti-purge activist Nya (Lex Scott Davis), and her wayward, wannabe gangster brother Isaiah (Jovian Wade), all of whom eventually discover the government’s hidden, insidious agenda behind this experiment.
DeMonaco hands the directing reins over to Gerard McMurray for this installment, and the transition is largely seamless, at least in the sense that The First Purge is a scattershot collection of violence and platitudes about that violence. Each character’s separate thread provides a different flavor of movie at any given moment: scenes featuring the purge architects (Marisa Tomei & Patch Darragh) take on the tenor a conspiratorial thriller, while Dimitri’s angle involves typical gang warfare beats when a rival gangster plots to usurp his throne. Nya and Isaiah’s stories feature what you most expect from a Purge movie, as the siblings navigate a twisted funhouse of masked psychopaths and assorted deathtraps (including an absurd minefield set up by two very pissed off elderly women). Both the iconography and the jagged rhythms are familiar: like the previous two sequels, The First Purge tends to dart about in an effort to capture the swelling chaos engulfing this terrified community, with some sequences proving to be more thrilling than others.
It’s not until about halfway through that The First Purge really finds its speed, thereby allowing it to channel its righteous fury into a vital piece of pulp filmmaking. As the NFFA’s agents watch their experiment unfold, they’re dismayed that participation levels aren’t rising to expectations—in fact, large swaths of the population are actually riding out the night by celebrating at raucous block parties, seemingly in direct defiance of the government. Pockets of violence do begin to erupt, albeit suspiciously: suddenly, there are highly-armed paramilitary hate groups (including fully robed KKK members) stalking the streets, eradicating everyone in sight. It comes as no surprise that they’ve arrived at the behest of the NFFA itself, leaving little doubt that The Purge is government sanctioned ethnic cleansing, a notion previous films have alluded to but is made quite explicit here.
The premise of the franchise comes full circle with this acknowledgment: what began as a small scale home invasion thriller featuring a black man fleeing white psychopaths becomes a full-on assault on a minority community by a tyrannical government looking to purge its undesirables. In doing so, it becomes an unapologetically rebellious act of grindhouse defiance and provocation—The First Purge is truly a movie of the moment that exploits familiar images of black pain and responds in kind with the cathartic brutalization of white supremacists. This is also a brazenly black movie: not only is it notably helmed by an African-American director, but nearly every major character is also a person of color. Black rebellion has increasingly become a signature for this franchise, and it’s eventually the defining characteristic of The First Purge, which climaxes with a group of Staten Island residents fending off hate groups during a nightmarish clash amid smoke, flames, and bloodshed.
Arguably the best stretch of this franchise yet, the climax here is awash in confrontational imagery that shreds this allegory’s already tattered, thin veil. A gang dressed as cops stalks and assaults an unarmed black man on a baseball field, effectively reminding you of America’s true pastime; another scene finds Dmitri and his group hacking and slashing through Klansmen, a visual that’s unfortunately all too necessary at this moment in time. Eventually, Dmitri is pointedly forced to defend the projects from these intruders, and McMurray’s camera unflinchingly hovers on the carnage: with each step through the apartment building, the audience finds hallways littered with the bodies slain minorities, helpless in a war they didn’t even choose to fight. You will look upon this and reckon with it, McMurray insists, refusing to shy away from a horror that’s always been all too real for these communities.
The solution here involves Dmitri and his fellow survivors taking up arms to defend themselves, a notion that feels bleak itself, and made all the more so by the stark realization that no one is coming to help them. They’re left to fend for themselves, with no liberator—much less a white savior—in sight. When pressed into such a corner, the only recourse is meeting violence with violence, a notion that eschews the previous film’s “when they go low, we go high” mantra in favor of exacting every pound of flesh you can to survive. On the topic of “civility,” The First Purge leaves no doubt: the only proper way to deal with white supremacy is to annihilate it with violence. The only good Klansman is the one wearing robes soaked in his own blood.
Nuance isn’t a priority here, as both the street-level grunts and the NFFA elites are almost cartoonish, one-note villains defined by their sheer, sociopathic glee at inflicting chaos and destruction upon this underprivileged community. Even the lone exception—Tomei’s behavioral scientist who hatched the experiment “without politics in mind”—feels like a satire of a Trump voter: here’s this oblivious white woman handing over the keys to a group that tells us exactly who they are, yet she has the gall to be aghast when her experiment is co-opted for these horrific ends. If this were real-life, the New York Times would probably be itching to interview her over and over again to understand the psychology behind her decision—all while ignoring everyone who suffered at her hands, naturally. The script here rightfully reserves no sympathy for her, though, because it understands a fundamental truth that this misguided line of journalism misses out on: these people support horrific policies because they know they’ll never be affected by them. It's easy not to care when you don't actually have to.
The First Purge is so timely in this respect that no one will accuse it of being subtle—there’s little doubt that DeMonaco has siphoned headlines, images, and soundbites from the past few years into this discordant howl of a movie. This, however, is not a time for subtlety, not when an administration has tacitly endorsed white supremacists as "very fine people" and separated families as a matter of policy: these are troubling, downright evil times that call for shots straight across the bow. If anything, The First Purge isn’t blatant enough in singling out the current sitting president, especially given its inflammatory teaser poster. A throwaway line about “pussy-grabbing motherfuckers” is suggestive enough but leaves you wanting something with a little more bite.
Still, that’s a minor quibble since one can easily imagine this franchise taking another, apolitical path altogether, one that would have exploited its clever hook for mindless, splatter movie violence. It’s a credit to DeMonaco that he resisted the urge and instead has crafted one of the era’s defining exercises in studio movie rebellion: The First Purge is a movie that should make much of its audience genuinely uncomfortable in the way this franchise’s once prophetic vision of a dystopian future has its past firmly rooted in our present.
Many will also recognize it as a timeless American tale, especially when we learn that the Purge—like the nation itself—is built on the backs of unwilling black bodies. So, too, however, is the resistance—I’d call it 4th of July counterprogramming, but it’s actually difficult to think of anything more appropriate for this holiday.
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