UK Release Date: 4th July 2018
Runtime: 97 minutes
Director: Gerard McMurray
Writer: James DeMonaco
Starring: Y’lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis, Joivan Wade, Mugga, Patch Darragh, Marisa Tomei, Rotimi Paul
Synopsis: A new American political party announces an experiment to take place on Staten Island. For 12 hours, all crime will be legal.
Watching the Purge franchise is a little bit like being a fan of the England football team. There’s something in our national psyche which means that, every time there’s a major tournament, we expect great things from the team, certain that all of the potential will finally pay off with success. The same is true of the Purge movies, which have always felt like they should be strong horror satires. This year, the England team over-achieved enormously and made it to the semi-finals of the World Cup. Perhaps appropriately, this year’s The First Purge marks a similar over-achievement for the franchise. Finally, at the fourth time of asking, this is a Purge movie that’s making a deliberate, potent satirical argument.
This time around, franchise head honcho James DeMonaco is on writing duties only, ceding the director’s chair to Gerard McMurray. The story brings everything back to the beginning, with the Purge just a social experiment conceived by scientist Dr Updale (Marisa Tomei). Newly minted political heavyweights The New Founding Fathers of America decide to give the idea a go. They decide that Staten Island will be the venue for a 12-hour period of sanctioned lawlessness, with all crime legal. Cash-strapped residents are paid to stay on the island rather than flee, while cash bonuses are offered for anyone willing to “actively participate” in bringing about mayhem. The opening scene of the film sees junkie Skeletor (Rotimi Paul) quizzed about his desire to exorcise his demons, in a sort of Voight-Kampff test for psychopaths.
It’s a neat evocation of the politics that has increasingly become the hallmark of the franchise which, helped by the ascent of Donald Trump, draws a connecting line between its NFFA and the American right-wing, from the NRA to the KKK – both specifically and chillingly referenced in this most recent entry. It quickly becomes clear that this is not a social experiment in the way Tomei’s character had planned, but instead a diversion allowing for a programme of ethnic cleansing. As the Purge gets started, drug kingpin Dmitri (Y’lan Noel) leaves his high-security home when he is targeted and runs into former flame Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and her son Isaiah (Joivan Wade), who thrust himself into the violence in an attempt to earn money.
There’s a push and pull in The First Purge between the predominantly white political elite pushing the Purge, including the absurdly Aryan mercenaries sent in to amp up the violence, and the predominantly black residents of the communities participating in the experiment. The presence of a black voice within the filmmaking team is perhaps to blame for a more competent and less troubling take on racial politics than in the shocking Election Year, with references to the KKK and the Charleston shooting feeling earned and important, rather than crass and unwarranted. Pointed jabs at the NRA are also compelling, including a very prominent billboard flogging assault rifles.
This film takes steps to fill the logical gaps of the Purge. It shows the way Purgers initially jump to looting and carefree partying, rather than immediately embarking upon gleeful killing sprees, and positions the Purge politically as a cynical attempt to take racist views to their logical, murderous conclusion. Noel and Davis are terrific as the defiant residents battling back, while Wade gets plenty to do as a youngster who is constantly on the brink of travelling down any number of violent paths. The standout, though, is Mugga as Nya’s quick-witted neighbour Dolores – a necessary source of comic relief.
There are shortcomings to The First Purge, when it comes to its spectacle. Much of the violence is uninspired and accompanied by splatters of unconvincing CGI gore. What ever happened to a good squib? However, this action takes place within a very well-realised and drawn world that combines the neon hedonism of Purge parties with the grotesque masks and grime of poverty-stricken housing projects. McMurray brings a visual dynamism that has been absent in previous movies, while DeMonaco’s script has a renewed focus and intelligence. It has taken four attempts, but DeMonaco and Blumhouse finally have the skills to Make The Purge Great Again.
Pop or Poop?
The Purge movies have benefited from a huge slice of accidental relevance in the wake of Trump’s rise to the summit of American politics. The First Purge has the courage to lean into that and delivers a bracing indictment of the American establishment’s contempt for those in poverty and, especially, people of colour. Allusions to real world tragedies are handled well and, although it’s anything but subtle, this is a movie that serves as a satirical rallying cry against the powers that be.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.