If you can watch The First Purge without thinking about the current political climate, you are either a far better person than I am or you are in complete and utter denial.
Director Gerard McMurray (Burning Sands) takes over the reins from James DeMonaco, who still penned this film, in handling what is an undeniably socially and politically relevant prequel to the Purge films.
In essence, The First Purge is an origin story.
The opening scenes from The First Purge may not be stripped directly from the headlines, but there's little denying that they have an aching familiarity as America has become a country divided with white supremacists now back out in the open while economic division rules the land. While The Purge: Election Year ended with a Hillary Clinton-style leader rising to the presidency and this annual practice finally banished, The First Purge backs that train up with the N.R.A. backed New Founding Fathers of America party rising to power nationwide and a conservative president declaring the American dream to be dead.
How you feel about this entire foundation may very well determine your likelihood to embrace The First Purge, a socially aware and politically astute film that is also rather relentlessly cynical about institutions and the people who guide them.
Engineered by Marisa Tomei's Dr. Updale, aka "The Architect," the New Founding Fathers come up with the idea for a 12-hour period during which all crime will be legalized on Staten Island. Residents are offered $5,000 to stay on the island, even more cash if they are active participants in the violent festivities and agree to be fitted with special contact lenses that also record all of their dastardly deeds.
The belief, spoken most bluntly by Dr. Updale and the President's Chief of Staff (Patch Darragh), is that these angry, poor people won't hesitate to vent their rage once being given the opportunity to do so without fear of punishment. Instead, however, only a relatively modest smattering of individuals begin to participate once the festivities begin including those already inclined toward such violence and, per the usual stereotype, those with serious mental illness including one man who goes only by the name of Skeletor (Rotimi Paul, Mapplethorpe). The film's protagonists, including Nya (Lex Scott Davis, Superfly), an ex-con trying to keep her brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade, EastEnders) on the straight and narrow, and Dmitri (Y'lan Noel, television's Insecure), a local drug kingpin who is also Nya's ex, are mostly aligned in their wary approach toward this "experiment" and for the most part aim simply to survive the night without giving or receiving any trouble.
Of course, the powers that be can't really have that because, as we've pretty much known from The Purge, the actual purge isn't experimental at all and at its core it's really nothing more than a genocide of American society's poor and weak.
Now then, to be completely fair the Purge films have always felt more than a little familiar regardless of who has been president. While The First Purge amps up the political posturing, a divisive political subtext has always been woven into the cinematic fabric of the Purge films. You might be able to say, however, that given the current political climate that the Purge films have gained a significant sense of urgency.
It's not particularly surprising when Patch Darragh's Arlo Sabian, fearing the collapse of this grand experiment, begins taking matters into his own hands in also not particularly surprising ways that will remain unidentified here. Suffice it to say that Sabian is committed to a successful purge by any means necessary, actions which will ultimately jeopardize the lives of Nya and Isaiah and will turn our friendly neighborhood drug dealer into what amounts to being the film's ultimate hero.
Man, I love low-budget horror.
The folks at Blumhouse know how to make a film like The First Purge work, though it's a fair statement that this film has a much slower build than its predecessors and its politics are stated in a more balls to the walls kind of way. If by some weird chance a Trump supporter stumbles into a screening of The First Purge, they'll likely either walk out in a huff, demand their money back, or be so lost in the orgasmic delight of the film's far more authentic, realistic killings that they won't even notice.
Truthfully? I don't know which one to expect and I can't wait to see the box-office numbers for The First Purge.
While Marisa Tomei's the big name here, she's also the film's weak link courtesy of an underdeveloped, uninvolving character and dialogue that frequently borders on a rousing version of Mr. Obvious. The film's ensemble players are far more successful, particularly our trio of protagonists with Y'lan Noel's badassery on full display and successfully riding the line between honest action flick and cheesy B-movie.
Given too much thought, even in these times, The First Purge begins to break under the weight of its Jenga-like plot development and political insights turned into not even close to cathartic attempts at genocidal cleansing. However, The First Purge is also surprisingly bold and even a little courageous in the ways in which it tells an emotionally resonant story that matters as much because of its timing within our culture as because of anything the film actually does.
While fans of the first three Purge films may be a tad less satisfied with a film as interested in justifying the revolution as showing the revolution, once the revolution actually starts The First Purge lives into its contemporary relevance with a relentless weaving together of rage, dread, cynicism and resignation that makes the film a bizarrely entertaining yet exhaustingly cynical experience.
I liked it. I hated that I liked it. Then, I liked it some more.
Then, the worst thought of all actually hit me - What if this really is only the beginning?
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic