Director: Gerard McMurray
Stars: Lex Scott Davis, Y’lan Noel, Jovian Wade
The quality of the movies in the Purge franchise ricochets unevenly from film to film, and its tough to cite any entry as the series’ defining statement thus far, yet the political capital of the series has managed to increase every time. What started out seeming like a funky set of circumstances to perpetuate a white bread home invasion movie has slowly mutated into a blunt-force reflection of American racism and segregation.
Series creator James DeMonaco directed all the previous films, but exits here to make way for Gerard McMurray (either to give the relative newcomer a shot, or simply to focus on the forthcoming Purge TV series). DeMonaco still provides the script, however. As the title suggests, it’s prequel time, and we skip back some years to the night of the first ‘experiment’ conducted by the New Founding Fathers.
Here, for the first time, all crime is made legal for 12 hours, except instead of sanctioning this nationwide, Stanton Island has been selected to perform the litmus test (quite coincidentally a predominantly non-white and poor community). People flock from across the US to either participate or demonstrate. A $5,000 incentive is used to lure in the desperate.
For a narrative through-line, the film follows siblings Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and Isaiah (Jovian Wade). Dmitri is a local gangster, protective of his sister and oblivious that his younger brother has started slinging dope in the projects. Made to feel fearful for his life by local maniac Skeletor (Rotimi Paul), Isaiah signs up to participate in the event, so as to exact his legally sanctioned revenge.
Extraneous to this (so much so that they’re inserted into one scene with some exceedingly poor green screen effects) are NFF lackey Sabian (Patch Darragh) and social scientist Dr Updale (Marisa Tomei), though its arguable whether the film really needs their input at all, save for all that poorly performed exposition.
Largely this is a rather weak effort. Despite some spirited work from the trio of newcomers in the lead roles, DeMonaco’s screenplay is his worst yet; the dialogue particularly offering an unending barrage of lumpen howlers. The seclusion of the island generates the same lingering flavour of Escape From New York kindled by the last two entries, while the high-rise finale plays like a perfunctory nod to The Raid.
But while the writing often lets the film down, The First Purge manages to communicate more evocatively with a few key visual indicators. By which I do not mean it is exceptionally well filmed. McMurray defers to the rough’n’ready aesthetic of the last couple of entries. Instead, what lingers is the imagery of white men in KKK and police get-up riding into black neighbourhoods on a killing spree. And, of the inhabitants of those neighbourhoods standing their ground.
Racial tensions in the US under Trump are at a prickly high, and the further development that these squads of men – led by some dude in a Gestapo costume no less – are government-approved killers only doubles down on the feeling that The First Purge is way more interested in being remembered as a document of its era than as a film you can actually, y’know, enjoy. There’s nothing remotely subtle about it, but that seems entirely the point. For all its grim clowning, DeMonaco’s dystopian universe feels frighteningly close to our own. Just as The Handmaid’s Tale warns of the ramifications of gender oppression, so The Purge series seems intent on following government-condoned racism through to its nastiest conclusions.
The positive upshot of this is that it allows for greater black representation in genre cinema. It seems unlikely that stars Davis, Noel and Wade would’ve had the opportunities provided to them by The First Purge a few years ago, when most Hollywood produced genre filmmaking (including the first of this series) came with white leads. Sci-fi and horror have long been playgrounds in which filmmakers have reflected the concerns of the present. The bitter pill is that these roles are born out of real world problems manifesting in the arts. As racial inequality and the growing class divide press harder into our collective consciousness, they are manifesting in these movies. It’s a cycle seen before in the early 70’s with what came to be known as blaxploitation.
The First Purge is scariest when it depicts real-world fears that communities across America genuinely face; neighbourhoods made hostile by poverty in which the police can’t necessarily be counted on for protection. The lawlessness of The First Purge is a cartoon version of a situation all-too-real for some. With a president who will not condemn hate groups, this film reflects a society that feels increasingly abandoned.
The residents of Stanton Island are forced to protect themselves and fight for their community; a place that they pride in spite of its shortcomings. DeMonaco’s vision for this muddies the waters of a purely passive leftist reading, as the film descends into relentless and deafening gun violence. Watching Dmitri getting locked and loaded, one wonders if certain members of the NRA will get excited or start panicking. His assault on the intruders is gratifying as lawless wish fulfilment, but it also feels as though it surrenders the high ground.
DeMonaco and McMurray’s mirroring of the state of the nation is graceless, to the extent that it can seem like political exploitation (or conceivably be misconstrued as glamorising violence). To these eyes nothing in The First Purge could be considered aspirational. What it is is a fuzzy, frustrated and often ugly little film as befitting its subject matter. It may reach for relevancy, but this ground is lost just as quickly because it’s not a well constructed experience. Simply, I can’t imagine wanting to watch it again. So while it may end up being heralded as a minor cultural marker amid the media mess, it is in every other respect a minor film.