The First Purge

The First Purge continues the series’ evolution into one of our sharpest social satires without sacrificing visceral B-movie thrills, even if this particular entry is a touch too predictable.

This review contains relative SPOILERS.

One last time for those of you just joining us.  2013’s The Purge was an absolute piece of garbage; an impressively inept and thoroughly non-scary home invasion horror movie in the vein of The Strangers but with the temerity to waste an outstanding macro premise – for one night a year, in an alternate-timeline version of America ruled over by a fascist theocracy called The New Founding Fathers of America, all crime is legal – and writing political commentary cheques it had absolutely no intention of cashing.  Whatever hot-button of-the-moment issues it looked set to capitalise on, this series having been born midway through Obama’s time in political office as economic disparities became an evermore unavoidable issue and the Tea Party movement began cementing their hostile takeover of the Republican party, were instead relegated to the occasional flow-breaking monologue interlude and otherwise ignored entirely in favour of… well, a garbage knockoff of The Strangers.

But then a funny thing happened.  Writer-director James DeMonaco, perhaps emboldened by the massive success of The Purge and let off the leash a little more, or perhaps having taken the resounding critical beating to heart and resolving to be better, began quite possibly the biggest turnaround in quality since, I dunno, Radiohead.  Anarchy, released just thirteen months later, moved proceedings to the streets of Los Angeles for a nasty old-school action horror B-movie, one that switched to more of a vignette-based structure in order to display different facets of The Purge concept and taking tentative steps towards fully engaging with the political, racial, and classist subtexts inherent in the premise with a somewhat more diverse cast and the big twist that, contrary to what we’ve been told, The Purge doesn’t work and is instead an excuse for the government to send out death squads to kill the poor and ‘undesirable.’

That was a strong start, but DeMonaco would proceed to fully embrace the John Carpenter influences (not surprising since he also wrote the Assault on Precinct 13 remake) and the gleeful lineage of deliberate provocation in political B-cinema with 2016’s Election Year.  Everything just seemed to click there.  The action was better, the satire was simultaneously sharper in its detail (even tackling internalised class-based racism amongst the wealthier side of the Black community without falling on its face) whilst blunter in its execution (Crips slaughtering government-sponsored Neo-Nazi militias), and DeMonaco’s decision to both directly focus on the resistance and definitively tie a bow on the series’ narrative made for a film with drive, purpose, and hopeful catharsis that turned out to be one of 2016’s finest viewing experiences.

Of course, as we all know, Election Year turned out to be too goddamn hopeful about the state of those United States of America, which can lead to one asking the question: is part of the joy of watching this series, particularly as DeMonaco has more thoroughly embraced the satire and political commentary inherent in his premise, predicated on having one’s own political biases confirmed and played to?  Especially somebody like me, the self-proclaimed White liberal ally?  Comparisons to Get Out are becoming ten-a-penny, it being the other recent social horror movie that became a big hit, but they’re not unfounded.  Both films are designed to provoke large sections of their audience, both films can play to the bleachers, but Jordan Peele’s masterwork aims to challenge, unsettle, and discomfort exactly the kinds of people who would be comforted and find catharsis in DeMonaco’s series.  For all of DeMonaco’s button-pushing and violent catharsis, it doesn’t stick in the same way that Peele’s surgical precision and refusal to spare White viewers’ feelings does.

That question – how much is my enjoyment of this series based on cathartic political confirmation, and how much is based on these films as nasty action-horror B-movies in their own right – is a fair one to ask.  Particularly since, although he has improved massively over the course of the series, DeMonaco is still only an average-level director.  He’s got an eye for loaded imagery and can communicate his equal parts trashy-yet-studied screenplay well enough to make a film like Election Year hit as hard as it needs to, but the series so far still felt like it was being held back somewhat from its full potential, regardless of how much I genuinely loved Election Year.  Fortunately, DeMonaco appeared to have been one step ahead in that regard, willingly vacating the director’s chair for The First Purge in favour of relative newcomer Gerard McMurray.  You can still see DeMonaco’s fingerprints all over the finished film, but the effect of switching directorial control over to McMurray is immediate and evident.

Part of that fact may be because McMurray is also working from a scenario intentionally set in some unspecified ‘tomorrow’ rather than 30 or 40 years down an alternate timeline.  The First Purge, as one can assume from the title, takes us all the way back to the beginning of the series’ timeline, slightly retconned to be a year or two from now.  The New Founding Fathers have recently taken office and have thrown their weight behind a social scientist’s radical experiment of allowing ordinary citizens twelve hours to release their aggression without rules or restrictions, in order to see if it helps pacify their anger against the government and their own social situation.  Forcing the legislation required through Congress, the NFFA select Staten Island as their testing ground, providing cash incentives to primarily Black and Latinx civilians that make up its population to stay for the experiment, with the promise of even further financial rewards should those that stay choose to “participate.”

What this effectively allows McMurray to do is tap into the constant unease and paranoia of living as a minority in depressed poverty-stricken areas such as Staten Island, the risks of walking the streets alone at night with eyes gunning for you everywhere, stray gunshots in the far distance, groups of potential rival gangs huddled together.  But rather than drawing another upper-class White man’s idea of what life in ‘the ghetto’ might be like, McMurray (building upon DeMonaco’s script) keeps pulling attention to the ways in which predominately White governments have been deliberately stoking and exacerbating the situation for years, drawing links between the fictitious NFFA and real governments.  Those eye-contact cameras that Purgers are told to put on, in order to film their planned chaos for the NFFA to use for their own propaganda purposes, work as extremely creepy pieces of visual design – the sharp menace of the digitally enhanced eyes are, for me at least, immeasurably scarier than any of the masks the series has used up to this point – symbolic of living in an area where anyone could get you at any time for any reason, and as a constant reminder of how these people are not fully in control of their actions, many effectively being forced into making these choices because of an uncaring (or actively malicious) government.

McMurray does this throughout, even achieving the similar feat of Peele’s Get Out in flipping the Scary Black Man trope on its head in the extremely cathartic Die Hard-inspired finale – albeit whilst he and DeMonaco also play it straight-ish with a manic hopped-up junkie named Skeletor (Rotimi Paul) who becomes the film’s recurring non-government antagonist.  The results not only amplify DeMonaco’s screenplay by integrating the words and messages much more smoothly into the visuals and minute-to-minute world, but they also create a genuinely tense and often-scary thriller.  The scares themselves may still be perfunctory but the tension and atmosphere are thick throughout.  Once those sirens go off, McMurray rarely lets up until daylight, a vast improvement from DeMonaco’s haphazard control, with the few times he does coming from genuine intent rather than ineptitude.

DeMonaco, for his part, takes no prisoners.  This is absolutely a film designed to get a rise out of all audience members, to piss off the kinds of people who need pissing off – the ones who think that Klansmen racing freely down the streets mowing down innocent minorities are somehow not the actions of inarguable bad guys – and to provide everyone else with exactly the kinds of crowdpleasing cheering and jeering that they might need.  There are references to the Charlottesville riots, population control, decades of governmental interference in low-income Black-populated districts, institutionalised racism in the police force, one of the NFFA spokespeople even refers to “the will of the people” when justifying the extremely-tight (but overwhelmingly-White in favour) public vote that enabled the experiment to occur in the first place.  The man does not hold back with McMurray meeting him every step of the way with loaded-as-hell imagery, in the great tradition of political B-cinema.

Despite how it may sound on paper, though, the film never tips over into being exploitative, into fetishizing Black and Hispanic violence like many other films that want to make points about continued systemic racism do.  For one, perhaps as part of First Purge being a prequel, DeMonaco’s sledgehammer is particularly sharp and empathetic this time around.  As expected by anybody who has ever criticised the series’ premise, the vast majority of the Staten Island citizens who remain during The Purge don’t go on a giant murder-spree, instead either holding giant block parties or engaging in public orgies, whilst those who do “participate” mostly stick to petty thefts – one of the first acts involves somebody trying to rob an ATM, the outcome of which is the kind of middle-finger towards haters that I can get behind – or settling gang scores without having to worry about the cops arriving.  Even then, because of the government-issued contacts, it’s never left in any doubt as to who DeMonaco and McMurray see as the real instigators of the violence and poverty and why they would believe Staten Island to be the perfect test-ground in the first place, and that’s before the death squads are called in.

For two, DeMonaco’s character work remains arch but is making strides towards something more three-dimensional.  Protagonist duties are split between Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), a respected drug lord wrestling with his conscience trying to do good who doesn’t trust The Purge, Nya (Lex Scott Davis), a very outspoken but pacifist political activist and Dmitri’s ex, and Isaiah (Jovian Wade), Nya’s younger brother who is working with Dmitri in an attempt to earn enough money to move out of The Projects and is Purging both for the money and to get revenge on Skeletor for cutting him days before.  This set-up allows DeMonaco to combine his messages about the need for anger and active open resistance from Election Year, the ones that were baked into the film’s core but kept separate from the characters themselves, into the character work, adding further structure to the narrative and tying interrogations about the morality of drug dealing into the arc of Dmitri.  Nothing revolutionary, to be sure, but it works.

For three, DeMonaco and McMurray are all about catharsis.  If reality is going to keep getting worse, if these racist assholes are going to continue getting more and more empowered, then at least we can provide a space to rage successfully against them for now, seems to be their mindset.  For all the violence, for all the death, for all the tension, and for the obvious fact that there are going to be at least three more decades worth of Purges in-universe, The First Purge is actually quite the hopeful film.  It’s a film about utilising the system designed to keep you down against itself in order to bring at least a modicum of change and resistance down on the oppressors in charge, about surviving and then fighting back.  This is a film that pointedly features armed drug-dealers taking the very guns that the government drip-fed into their neighbourhoods in an attempt to get them to kill each other – which really happened as part of the CIA crack epidemic, look it up – and using them to fight back against the government-sponsored death squads roaming through Staten Island as the night winds on.  A sequence shot, scored, and edited for maximum badass-ery, for the record.

And therein lies the appeal of The First Purge: that marriage of blunt provocative but also studied social commentary with rock-solid base genre thrills, both working in sync to maximise one another’s impact.  A sequence in which Nya and Isaiah are held up by a Purger who fires what turns out to be a water-gun carries furious commentary about White privilege and tense seat-clenching fear.  A mercenary unit funded by the government being briefly hacked down by one of the victimised Black men they’ve spent their whole lives exploiting directly and indirectly is both pointed messaging and a moment designed to make certain audience members cheer.  Dmitri gets to be both the avatar of an inbound reckoning by oppressed Black people in poverty during the outstanding finale, and a compelling somewhat complex and likeable character in his own right, particularly thanks to Y’lan Noel’s star-making performance – seriously, the man is a fountain of compelling charisma and a born star who should be in everything yesterday.

All this said, it ain’t perfect and maybe doesn’t quite pass Election Year for me.  As mentioned, despite the great work in tension and atmosphere, the actual scares are still extremely predictable and perfunctory; there has got to be more variety in doable scares for this series than ‘somebody bursts into the extremely tight frame screaming whilst that one sound effect plays.’  DeMonaco’s dialogue occasionally crosses the line from ‘enjoyably hammy in B-movie tradition’ to ‘just plain clunky,’ especially whenever we cut back to the NFFA control room where apparently all of the extremely stiff placeholder dialogue gathered together for one big jamboree – Marisa Tomei is visibly eying the door rather than trying to rise or sink to its level.  Somewhat more damningly, the film as a whole is ultimately too predictable, sometimes right down to the second.  Not just in regards to the information we already knew due to First Purge’s nature as a prequel, either.  Many of the film’s big provocative swings can be guessed long in advance – three guesses as to why many of Staten Island’s Black and Latinx residents hideout in a church, first two don’t count.

But, then again, is that last part a failure of The First Purge itself or of America in 2018?  The Purge as a whole, much like satire in general, has been reliant on exaggerating the underlying fears and injustices of society for its content, in visualising things we know are happening in abstract.  At the time of Election Year, armed Neo-Nazis weren’t really stomping down American streets with the tacit approval of the US government in charge, but then, 12 months later, they were.  Far-right hate groups really are emboldened to walk down city streets in 2018 and commit hate crimes, and that’s not counting self-described ‘normal’ civilians who will call the cops on, and spew racial epithets at, Black people just for existing.  Mass shootings, targeted ones towards non-White races and women, are a daily occurrence on news cycles the world over.  Governmental parties ramming harmful legislation through their versions of Congress in an effort to appease their own White male upper-class benefactors, damning literally everybody else, and ignoring the copious protests and backlash has always been a thing but has exponentially increased in the last few years.

If The First Purge can be accused of being too predictable, then isn’t it more a condemnation of the state of our world right now that a film like this is more of a reflection of things than an exaggeration of them?  And is it really DeMonaco and McMurray’s job to invent new palpably worse scenarios when this is what’s happening right now?  And, to bring it back around, should they be mining this moment in time for simple cathartic B-movie thrills instead of something that challenges and deeply unsettles in its provocations?  I don’t think that last one is my place to say.  I can only tell you that I loved The First Purge, that it is a shining example of exactly the kind of intense nasty B-movie I love, and that it is one of my favourite films of 2018 so far.  This series is a release and arguably the kind of thing we need more of.  They may not change anything, but the feelings these films provide are not invalid.

Callie Petch, as if you couldn’t tell, is mad as hell.

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