★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
The First Purge has a lot to say, but it does it with a rather ham-fisted approach. There isn’t much subtlety to this movie. It is an interesting but flawed social commentary concept piece.
Directed by Gerard McMurray
Editor Post Note: Mike Campbell also did a review for this movie, and he liked it slightly more than me.
I wanted to really like this movie. It appeals to me politically, as I lean towards the social justice side of the political equation, and The First Purge takes a very strong stance against the Make America Great dog whistle for turning back the clock to a less politically correct, and frankly, more racially problematic era. This is a Black Lives Matter tinged call to arms against the marginalization of poor, largely black communities. It partially succeeds, but the storytelling structure is so blunt that the message unfortunately fails to fully resonate.
It is interesting to see the evolution of the Purge movies. The first movie was a straight-up home invasion. The second movie brought the protagonists out of their homes and put them on the run through the anarchy of the streets at full purge. The third movie attempted a political thriller approach that was a bit of a step back for the franchise.
Each of the movies made a clear moral stand that the Purge was a terrible idea, and at the same time celebrated in the violence and the terror that beset the group of protagonists. So it’s a bit of an awkward dichotomy, and a tricky needle to thread to get the feels right.
The First Purge has at its core a solid foundation to work off of. It follows the creation of the purge as a social experiment, backed by a new Founding Fathers Party, which represents what would happen if the alt-right formed a true political party, splintering off from the traditional parties… but there are very strong echoes to the Trump presidency here.
The residents of Staten Island, which is subjected to this Purge Experiment, are paid to stay in their homes… and if they are willing to participate in the criminal mayhem of all-crimes-are-legal purging, they will get paid. Among the residents are Nya (Lex Scott Davis) a political activist, her frustrated brother Isiah (Joivon Wade), and her drug-lord ex-boyfriend Dmitri (Y’lan Noel).
The residents are all extremely wary of this event, and we end up tracking three separate storylines:
- Nya is doing her best to try and protect the community by encouraging people not to participate in this purge and to take shelter in the local church.
- Isiah decides to try and take revenge on the decidedly creepy junkie named Skeletor who cut him with a razor, while Isiah was contemplating helping to sell some of Dmitri’s drugs.
- Dmitri is trying to lay low and not get caught up in all the nonsense, protecting his hard-won criminal spoils and business.
When the purge starts, the people of Staten Island use their common sense and don’t actively participate in much seriously violent action. They throw parties and put on creepy masks like it’s a big Halloween street party. This, of course, doesn’t go down well with the government goons who need bloodshed to justify their experiment. So, they send in a bunch of KKK/Nazi mercenaries to cause mayhem. It’s all a bit too on the nose, with the hoods, crosses, and Nazi helmets. But then again, we saw elements of this in Charlottesville, and the echoes of that sad event make this rather poignant.
It then falls upon Dmitri and his gang to bring their formidable firepower to help rescue the community, and we get our big third act showdown with Dmitri as the action figure, and the movie goes into full Michael Bay mode. (Bay’s production company Platinum Dunes helped to produce this film.)
It is not a spoiler to note that as a conclusion, the government decides to declare that it was all a huge success, and therefore they’re going to go nationwide with it. Wasn’t that great everybody?
That last revelation undercuts some of the political points of the movie, as by having the purge going nationwide subjects all people of all classes to the folly of the purge. But, this being a prequel, it has to set up the previous films and get to that suburban home of Leana Heady and Ethan Hawke in the first movie somehow. There are gigantic logical leaps of faith you have to accept with this franchise. It represents a very broad take on the breakdown of society. This particular sequel asks some very interesting questions, but it sometimes gets in the way of its own message.
Is it a plea for gun control? The movie claims that the purge was done with the direct support of the NRA for this grand experiment and that the Founding Father President is using the purge as a political bludgeon. In one of those curious conflicting political stands, the film definitely takes a dig at gun culture, but in the next breath will provide some very satisfying gun-fu action. The film is full of muddy messaging. Is being the kingpin drug lord a good thing or bad thing for the community? Does the failure of pacifism to protect the neighborhood proof that the idea of peace is a fool’s errand?
As a horror film, I wonder what this movie would have been like if they showed the villains actually mowing down the innocent civilians, whether the impact would have been felt more. What you ended up seeing was the carnage aftermath, and a lot of the real violence you saw was executed by our protagonists (which was admittedly quite satisfying). If the movie went more towards a Hard-R rating, it might have been an even more potent statement. This is a scenario where pushing the boundaries of good taste may have made the point stick better.
Then again, this is a franchise built for mass appeal. So making it really gory may have penalized it financially. A tricky line to cross, to be sure.
Even though it puts race relations at the front of its messaging, the closest parallel to this movie might be the John Carpenter classic Assault on Precinct 13. The First Purge is much closer to that movie than to the more nuanced commentary nested in Get Out. All the violence perpetrated by faceless bad guys and the last stand bunker mentality of the protagonists marry up very well to that grindhouse landmark. Interestingly, given the influence of Night of the Living Dead upon Assault, it is oddly resonant to come full circle to that watershed movie in black horror lore.
This movie is defiant, and proud, and brash, but it is a proclamation by megaphone and served by a somewhat shaky narrator. I applaud the effort though, and I hope as they continue this story in the upcoming Purge television series, that they explore the whole context of the purge, in a Walking Dead fashion, immersing itself in the context, and creating that connective tissue missing in this film.
The First Purge is rated R, for a lot of gun violence, stabbings, drug use, and language. It is currently playing on HBO, and will likely be streaming on various platforms once it finishes its run on the premium cable package.