The First Purge is a messy but surprisingly poignant foray into political horror
The Purge franchise is a curious one. Riding on the possibilities of a simple but enticing premise, this series about a near-future America where all crime is legal for 12 hours of the year rose out of the shadows of B-movie schlock to become a surprisingly popular exploration of our country's most violent tendencies. What perhaps made it so interesting to audiences was its ability to conjure up our worst nightmares about the failure of the American dream, using subtext to provide visually stylish horror that had something on its mind. Now, with The First Purge, the franchise finally puts its thoughts into explicit action, delivering a messy but often thrilling dose of political horror.
Set years before the previous entries in the series, the film portrays the events of the first ever Purge (here simply referred to as "The Experiment"), in which the night of lawlessness is contained to one test site: Staten Island. Chosen due to its concentration of minorities and low-income citizens, the villainous ruling political party, the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA), hopes the disproportion of class will lead to a cathartic, violent evening that will convince the rest of the country to join in on the "festivities", thus effectively wiping out the social groups it considers its enemies. The protagonists of the film are groups of various Staten Island residents, led by activist Nya (Lex Scott Davis, Superfly) and local drug kingpin Dmitri (Y'lan Noel, Insecure). Nya and Dmitri have a history, of course, complicated by her distaste for his criminal activities and his unintended inclusion of Nya's bother Isaiah (Joivan Wade, Doctor Who) in drug dealing. While the pair plan on shacking up on Purge night, the two are forced into the chaos when those closest to them are threatened by the increasing levels of violence, stoked by mercenaries, Klansmen, and other villains sent in by an NFFA that's disappointed the Purge is being used more for partying than for violence.
While themes of racial and class tension bubbled underneath the previous Purge films, it bursts into unapologetic fury in this entry. Screenwriter and series creator James DeMonaco doesn't take any steps to mask the film's anger, taking real-world images of white supremacy and class warfare and formulating them into monsters of the night that hunt our minority heroes as a crass team of white bureaucrats watches from a far-away control room. It's often on-the-nose and overly silly, as is the norm for this franchise, but the social commentary here feels poignant. Rather than in cash on the cheap fear-mongering tactics of other recent politically minded thrillers, like last week's garish Sicario: Day of the Soldado, it formulates real anxieties swaths of people in our country are feeling into resonant symbols of terror. While Soldado dealt in misguided "what-if" scenarios, The First Purge amplifies already present issues into pulpy horror, providing a cathartic experience who those looking to give bigots the villainous portrayal they deserve. It lacks the finesse of other similarly minded horror films, such as last year's excellent Get Out, but its attempts are admirable.
Of course, the film has its issues, which mostly lie in the script. The dialogue is often clunky and cliche, especially in the case of exposition dumper Dr. Updale, the scientist behind the Purge (played by a woefully wasted Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler) who spits out such page-turning lines as "What have I done?!" It also has some pretty inexcusable plot points, including that Dmitri is a military-level killer whose aptitude for kicking ass is never explained. The shootout heavy climax undercuts the film's more intelligent portions, offering up rather uninspired set-pieces that fail to live up to their thrill-potential. But still, the action is mostly well-executed and the visuals are as eye-catching as ever. The difference here is that it's backed up by well-intentioned, if often messy, political themes that harken back to the blaxploitation films that form the moral backbone of B-movie filmmaking. The Purge franchise may be getting a bit tired, but at least its lack of sleep is giving it the courage to speak.