I’m going to be transparent about something up front: I’m going to the mat for The First Purge. Not only do I think it is a passable movie, but I think it is the only good Purge film to date.
The Purge is a franchise whose premise showed so much promise from the beginning. An American political system in which an annual event allows all crime to be legal for one night. It has B-movie schlock written all over it.
Why, then, was The Purge a quaint home invasion movie? Sure, it had the high concept marketing gimmick of people in creepy masks (a concept that has reached pique kitsch by the fourth installment). But otherwise it was no different, narratively, from a Funny Games or a Panic Room (both of which: superior artistic efforts than The Purge).
Exciting to hear, then, that The Purge: Anarchy would take place in the streets. Purge night experienced by people who cannot escape the nihilistic brutality of the festivities. The B-movie extravaganza we’ve been waiting for.
And it’s pretty good. Nothing special, but it has its moments.
With Anarchy out-performing The Purge at the box office (and The Purge being one of Jason Blum’s hottest intellectual properties), writer-director James DeMonaco was entering franchise territory. Like all great (?) horror franchises, the sequels imitate what worked before.
Thus, The Purge: Election Year drudged itself into theaters; a cheap imitation of the already mediocre film that came before it. You know what they say: First a tragedy, second a farce.
Through and through, the films in this franchise squander their premise. They avoided the exploitation thriller angle that the premise suggested. Then they went full-throated into that territory, but pulled back on the reins by attempting to have a political message. A political message that was so self-serious in Election Year that it felt as if DeMonaco believed the Purge to be a real-life event.
The only way out of the hole that this franchise dug for itself is The First Purge. It is a film whose schlocky premise holds true to franchise lore without giving up what makes any movie compelling: characters. And the political messaging at least has a real-world corollary.
In the other Purge films, we are meant to feel outraged that fictional characters have instituted a disgraceful practice that perpetuates violence for the sake of upper class prosperity. The real world has classicist corruption, but it isn’t that absurd.
With The First Purge—now directed by Gerard McMurray, with a script from DeMonaco—there is a visible relationship between the silly fictional corruption and real-world American problems.
The government in the film probes the lower and lower-middle classes of Staten Island, turning the screws until the violence appears. Economic and racial tensions brew up an uproariously silly gambit by the U.S. government to slowly kill off the lower economic brackets so that the rest of America can receive economic prosperity.
It is an obnoxiously blatant gambit that would never function in the real-world. However, at a character by character level, this film illustrates a commentary that, by the standards of The Purge franchise, is subtle.
That said, this is also a film that makes a Trumpian “grab them by the p***y” joke. So, you know, there are different shades.
Yes, The First Purge is no great movie. It is barely a good movie. But it secures a pretty firm grasp on character work; something that cannot be said about the other Purge films.
Simple motivations drive our characters to one central location. But it isn’t easy to predict that that is how these characters will end up. There is a desire drawn out by hinting at interpersonal conflicts. The drug-addicted, hyper aggressive Skeletor (Rotimi Paul) and young drug-pusher-in-training Isiah (Joivan Wade). The gang kingpin Dmitri (Y’lan Noel) and a dissident party within his organization.
These characters and a religious protector figure, Nya (Lex Scott Davis) all factor into the disastrous night with intrigue. In particular, Dmitri’s crusade to uncover the reality of what is happening during this experimental first purge is compelling.
Marissa Tomei’s “architect” character, on the other hand, has some of the worst dialogue in the film. And, ultimately, she is shoe-horned into the narrative. A few scenes here and there, not much to say, and she exits unceremoniously. In essence, she’s a marketing hire.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The Purge franchise doesn’t understand the one thing it desperately needs to function correctly: tension. The films toss in the occasional jump scare to appeal to the mainstream crowd. With The First Purge, these instances have no narrative motivation; they only exist to acknowledge the audience.
But most of the terror comes from the known existence of a threat. We know that all crime is legal, so we are expecting the worst. Most of the time, the fear is mask-based. With The First Purge, they add the horror of blue-tinted contacts.
I will argue that the The First Purge is not a horror film. It is not even a thriller. It is an action drama. Eliminate what makes The Purge films pandering—jump scares and eerie masks—and The First Purge is a fairly compelling action film. Dmitri and his colleagues move through a crime-riddled Staten Island, shooting their way toward a central location. It isn’t a tepid home invasion movie. Or a B-movie, trashy thriller. It is an action film about characters caught up in a tough situation coming together to survive the night.
That sounds more like Die Hard than Halloween (which we see prominently in the background as a way of cross-marketing. Thanks Universal.). As an action film, The First Purge allows for a few discrete subplots to string together into a compelling overall narrative. As a horror-thriller, it is nothing special.
Either way, on a comparative level The First Purge exceeds its predecessors. It makes the most out of the piss-poor world that it was dropped into. And it gives us characters worth rooting for in an environment that is actively trying to suppress them, both textually and subtextually.
The First Purge: B
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)