When The Purge first showed up in 2013, I don’t think Blumhouse knew what they had in relation to socio-political trends. It was an interesting concept about a “much needed release” for America in which citizens were allowed to purge their anger and commit acts of violence for twelve hours without worry of any consequences. Now, five years later, the films in this franchise have continued to evolve into political thrillers with a heavy social commentary, and The First Purge could not be any more relevant to what is happening in America today…
…Written by series creator James DeMonaco (The Purge) and directed by series newcomer Gerard McMurray, The First Purge is the first film in the franchise NOT directed by DeMonaco, which may explain why it feels so much, well, better than the previous films. The film takes us back to the initial rise of a third political party known as the New Founding Fathers of America, a party which comes about due to Americans frustrations with the GOP and DNC. In an effort to “save America”, the party decides to conduct an experiment on Staten Island where there will be no laws, including murder, for twelve hours. While citizens of the city, populated largely by poor, minority communities, are not required to participate, the government offers them five grand each to stay, with the possibility of further incentives granted for greater participation, i.e. going out and killing.
Right away, I found myself drawn into these characters much more than I have been in past Purge films. Gone are the days of DeMonaco trying to make us feel sorry for a rich white family that profits off of the Purge because their youngest child decides to help a minority. For the first time in this franchise, I felt DeMonaco brought the focus to the people that the Purge affects most. What’s more, the characters in The First Purge are simply great characters. We have Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), a gangster who runs the neighborhood, but isn’t some cap busting stereotype, and is rather a once decent man who found the only way he knew how to survive and prosper, the only way society seemed to allow for him. Following in his footsteps is little brother Isaiah (Jovian Wade), who decides to actively participate in the Purge out of sheer desperation to make money for his family, most specifically his sister, Nya (Lex Scott Davis), a strong voice in the community protesting the Purge, a woman who refuses to give into the lifestyle which the government is attempting to bury her in to the point where she refuses any attempt by Dmitri to help them with his “blood money”. All three are strong, relatable characters who bring a painful sense of realism to the idea that these are the sorts of lives the Purge would affect first, were it to actually be enacted.
I’ve seen a lot of reviews that say The First Purge has nothing to say. I respect my fellow critics, but anyone saying that couldn’t be more wrong. First off, The First Purge represents a lot of what is happening in society. It’s the same old story with a different face: the government is using minorities to further political gain. It happens all the time. Just look at the way Trump used Mexicans as scapegoats, referring to them all as bad people who Americans needed to protect themselves against. He’s a bastard and couldn’t be further from the truth, but real politics aside, The First Purge follows a similar process. In this reality, The New Founding Fathers have won the nomination and seated a president, but America is still failing, so they decide they need a win, something to show that they’re right and that they’re doing something. So, they create the Purge and enact it in a community typically wrought with violence, thinking that they can use the poor minority communities as an example of why something needs to be done in America, proof of the violence bubbling up all around us. The fact that the government offers each citizen financial benefits for participating is just the sort of gut-wrenching act you’d expect the government to use as a way to shield themselves from the fact that they’re doing anything wrong. Hey, t’s not wrong, they’re helping these people by giving them some kind of fucked up financial aid, right? Ugh. The payments are just one of the many examples of how The First Purge strikes so close to home that its bound to have many viewers leaving the theater with a sick feeling in their stomach, whether it be of anger, shame, or that old hot dog they knew they shouldn’t have ordered. Never get the hot dogs at movie theaters. EVER.
The brilliance of The First Purge comes from the citizens that populate the film, because despite all of the governments stereotypical planning, despite all of their “incentives”, they are forced to realize that they cannot bring the people down to their level. Staten Island largely chooses not to participate in the Purge, and whether you find that realistic or not, it’s a bold statement in a time where America has found itself so harshly split down the middle. It’s as if the film is trying to say that we as Americans can always rise above the government, no matter what they do, because at the end of the day, we’re all people, we all have feelings, and we’re not all spiteful murderers rotting at our core. At least, that’s what I’d like to believe. The First Purge is like a burning beacon of hope in that regard, that not all is doomed as long as mankind can retain its, well, humanity.
One issue I have pertaining to the political commentary of The First Purge however comes with the hiring of mercenaries from around the world to participate in the purge. Why? Simply because the rest of the film is attempting to make such a bold statement, that I don’t know why DeMonaco and McMurray don’t just go full force with the commentary and have the government send in various hate groups. We sadly have plenty of groups here in America that would’ve been more than happy for the government to pay them to escalate the violence, so to me, it only makes sense. It would also heighten the horror of the film by adding an all too real element of every day terror, which, typical to the franchise, is once again lacking. The filmmakers take one small step forward with the idea, with some of the mercs dressed in KKK garb and uniforms that have shades of Nazism, but the film never goes the distance in outright naming these groups for what they are, and it’s a disappointment because to me, it’s the one ingredient missing that could up a strong statement to an emotionally powerful gut punch.
As I mentioned, despite engaging characters and heavy social commentary, The First Purge still manages to fall flat on its face in regards to tone. It’s been an issue running rampant through the franchise, and The First Purge is no exception. As far as the horror goes, some elements work early on, such as the glowing contacts given out to Purge participants to record their every action, giving those wearing them eerie eyes highlighted by various shades of purple, green and red. The look has a predatorial appearance which is pretty damn effective. Because the film relies more on its message than tone, however, there are much fewer psychos populating The First Purge, namely only one, Skeletor (Rotimi Paul) who, while sufficiently creepy, is not in the film enough to carry a consistent element of horror.
Eventually, per usual, The First Purge becomes more of an action film in which our heroes/heroines are blasting their way through mindless mercs lacking any sort of personality. Instead of delving into the blood and violence which the film perpetuates and exploring the true horror of the situation, the film becomes just another shoot em up in the franchise, filled with action and explosions and not much in terms of creativity or even blood for that matter, resulting in a much tamer film than one would expect. I was hoping that with DeMonaco stepping down as director, The First Purge would take a deeper dive into the grindhouse action/horror that fans seem to be craving from it, and though McMurray is much more efficient of a director, the overall tone ultimately feels like another missed opportunity for hardcore horror fans.
The First Purge has a lot to say, and it says it well, which is why it stands another level above the rest. It’s an interesting franchise, to say the least, because the more political these films get, the better they are. I’ve found each Purge film to be an improvement on the last, but as I always say, just because you’re king of crap mountain doesn’t mean you’re not still standing on crap mountain. The First Purge isn’t crap, but beyond its strong messaging and well developed characters, it isn’t long before the film becomes another entry in a franchise that disappoints on multiple levels for horror fans wanting a little more punch for their buck. That being said, I truly believe that, years from now, when the dust has settled on the franchise, The Purge series could end up being one of the most fascinating franchises to revisit in relation to the real life socio-political events surrounding the films, because in a world where hate seems to be an infection festering within so many now, it’s not impossible to imagine the Purge as being an event we are all forced to participate in someday.
By Matt Konopka