The Purge movies exist at the vertex of art and commerce of pulp culture. Straddled on the ingenuity of their conceit and the jolt of their gleeful violence, they’re always quite uniquely thrilling. And just the same as any pulp entertainment, they’re invariably disposable. They play from within this bubble that keeps them from ever flourishing a smart concept into a film that transcends its violence that fleshes out surprisingly resonant ideas about race, class, and politics. But perhaps most important—less to you and more to its studio, the well-oiled factory that is Blumhouse—is the fact that these movies, without any need for continuity nor a desire for characterization to speak of, are designed to be easily “repeatable”. In business, that’s code for $$$.
To this writer’s frustration, it’s not wrong to say that these films, as creative products, succeed in serving their function: perfectly watchable and amply entertaining thrillers with little return beyond the price of their admission and a half-commitment to what feels only a side crusade to make social commentary for which they are perfectly positioned. The 2013 original, which pitted a posh suburban couple (Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey) against a masquerade of bloodthirsty maniacs a la The Strangers and Panic Room, barely touched on classism and completely mangled its resonance when it did. Five years later, the film series’ creator, James DeMonaco, writes The First Purge, a prequel that feels positively assured of what it’s trying to say. And even if it feels wonky in the whole, it’s the first Hollywood blockbuster to directly address Trump’s America with a kind of vulgarity and wretchedness to match. “Pussy-grabbing motherfuckers”, beware.
The new film is an origin story, and what’s interesting is that the solely recurring character in the Purge movies is the Purge itself. Here, we learn that a curious but morally indifferent scientist (Marissa Tomei) architected the barbaric program, insisting that it’s a psychological experiment rather than a political one. But that doesn’t sit well with Nya (Lee Scott Davis), a fierce dissenter of the program. Of course, she’s right. When the government gives its citizens a twelve-hour free pass for any sort of lawlessness—Including murder—you’d be remiss if you didn’t stop for a second and think if, as one character puts it, “something funky is goin’ down”.
And even so, Staten Island citizens, the chosen lot for the test run of the Purge, willingly sign up for the program. That’s largely due to the fact that much of them belong to the lower class and the $5,000 incentive for mere expressing of one’s support to the Purge is too big a money to pass up. Isaiah (Jovian Wade), Nya’s brother, thinks it’s the biggest and quickest money he’ll make without descending into a life of crime, so he walks in, gets tested, and is provided with a pair of camera lenses to document the first instance of the Purge. The hope—from a scientific standpoint, that is—is for the experiment to reveal that humans, stripped away of its basic human laws, will reveal its true stripes. Of course, the government has different things in mind, even going as far as hiring bands of mercenaries to pose as gangs simply to prove a point.
Thus begins The First Purge, ironically the first film in the series to wear its politics in its sleeve. Its violence is a jug-full of catharsis—sexual predators are pepper-sprayed, mercenaries in Ku Klux Klan regalia are hacked and slashed, white supremacist are punched with bullet holes on their bodies—and it’s hard to not take a big swig. And through the thick of it, Dimitri (Y’lan Noel), a drug kingpin cum Bruce Wayne figure, takes matters to his own hands and protect the ‘hood, come what may. He compounds the film’s potent socio-political allegories with a kind of rip-roaring thrill that his progenitors—Arnold Schwarzenegger, Keith David, and the like—to other speculative thrillers like The Running Man and They Live.
Still, the film feels like it went through the same B-movie assembly line as its predecessors. The plot is wholly predictable, the characters riddled with questionable motivations and even more so their decision-making. The tension all but dissipates toward the rear-end of the film, where much of its thrilling setups have been squandered. And that, in my book, is a-O.K. It’s the first Purge movie to ever fully commit to its idea. And if a perfectly watchable and amply entertaining thriller wishes to raise a middle finger like this—you know, Pussygate and everything—I’m down.
The First Purge
2018 / Action, Horror, Thriller / US
Direction: Gerard McMurray
Screenplay: James DeMonaco
Cast: Y’lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis, Joivan Wade, Mugga, Patch Darragh, Marissa Tomei
“America’s third political party, the New Founding Fathers of America, comes to power and conducts an experiment: no laws for 12 hours on Staten Island. No one has to stay on the island, but $5,000 is given anyone who does.”