7 out of 10
Y’lan Noel as Dmitri
Directed by Gerard McMurray
The First Purge Review:
The First Purge gives you exactly what it promises: a look at the inaugural experiment. Fans of the franchise know The Purge as a yearly tradition, a 12-hour period of time during which all crime, including murder, is legal. The idea behind this is that giving people a time to “purge” all their violence and deviance leaves the country largely without crime the rest of the year.
Though this is the fourth film in the series, it actually takes us back to the very first Purge. After the American economy collapses and an ultra-conservative party, the New Founding Fathers of America, takes control of Washington, an experiment is born: The Purge. Before it goes national, the first Purge is set up like an experiment on Staten Island. Residents are given $5,000 to stay on the island during the Purge, and they get bonuses if they participate. Those choosing to take part are implanted with tracking devices and are given contact lenses that record everything they see. Unsurprisingly, a lot of people decide to stay in order to earn the $5,000. They throw Purge parties or hole up in churches, hoping to wait out the violent event
The Purge films have always focused on socio-economic issues: the wealthy can afford to buy expensive security systems to keep them safe as they wait out the event, while the poor are left to fend for themselves, with the hopes among the NFFA being that the poor will thin their own numbers. Never before have the socio-economic issues been so blatant, nor the racial divide so severe. All of our main characters are African-Americans who live in the projects: Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), the drug dealer who is king of the projects; Nya (Lex Scott Davis), Dmitri’s ex-girlfriend and a passionate anti-Purger; and Isaiah (Joivan Wade), Nya’s younger brother, who lies about leaving Staten Island in order to get revenge on a junkie who humiliated him. Unsurprisingly, the NFFA Chief of Staff, Sabian (Patch Darragh) and the “architect” of the Purge, Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei) are white and upper-class.
Sabian is quickly revealed to have set up the Purge so that, from his point of view, it cannot fail; while Updale becomes appalled at what her creation has wrought. Staten Island was chosen because of a large population of poor minorities, which Sabian makes a point of exploiting. The racial implications are unavoidable. Any subtlety that previous installments of The Purge offered is gone. While that doesn’t necessarily make for a bad movie, in this politically alienated time we are currently living in, it does leave me worrying that it will deepen the racial and socio-economic divide in this country.
The film fluctuates between a combination of traditional horror and gangster elements, though I find the former to be far more interesting. Massive shoot-outs between rival gangs are not as compelling as an insane junkie named Skeletor (Rotimi Paul) killing indiscriminately. (I hope Skeletor gets his own spin-off, he was easily my favorite part of the film.) There are lots of horror movie references, from Village of the Damned (with the glowing contact lenses), to Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street; there was even a none-too-subtle nod to Blumhouse’s Halloween movie coming later this year. The mask designs were particularly upsetting, offering a savage DIY quality that we haven’t seen in Purges past.
The First Purge, like all Purge movies, ends when the Purge alarms sound. Though perhaps this film was missing a nice epilogue, where The Purge architects go over the data points and analyze what happened and how useful it could be. I am a nerd; I want the facts and figures. I guess I am also an optimist; I want there to be a positive reason for the mayhem.
Ultimately, if you are a fan of The Purge franchise, you are going to see and probably enjoy The First Purge. If you are not a fan, then you won’t, and that’s probably for the best, because this movie is not one that will heal any racial or socio-economic strife.