Film Review: The First Purge

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In the first Purge movie, a family is caught in a house under siege during the worst night of the year: the annual Purge, a 12-hour span when all crime, including murder, is permitted. The second and best entry in the series, The Purge: Anarchy, expanded the scope of the universe, moving from the wealthy suburbs to the inner city. Its follow-up, Election Year, continued the evolution of the franchise by doubling down on organized resistance to Purge Night.

Given that, you’d expect the fourth film in the Purge franchise to take things a step further, giving audiences the full-on class war—the impoverished rising up en masse to shut down the Purge—that it’s been building up to since its first installment. Instead, director Gerard McMurray and writer James DeMonaco, who wrote and directed the first three Purge installments, retread old ground by dialing things back to the beginning with The First Purge.

As you’d expect from the title, what we’re looking at here is, well, the first Purge—still in its experimental stage, and thus confined to Staten Island, where experiment designer Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei) and government liaison Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh) expect the predominantly black Park Hill housing projects to get particularly violent. While some of Park Hill’s residents intend to Purge—spurred on by monetary compensation proportionate to the level of participation—others, like community activist Nya (Lex Scott Davis), protest against it.

It’s made explicit in The First Purge that Purge Night is less about countrywide catharsis (its stated purpose) than it is an excuse for those in power to pick off the poor without ramifications. Except anyone who watched the first three Purge movies already knew that. They know that Purge Night is about race and class. They know that the government is determined to get rid of people deemed a “drain” on society—welfare recipients and the homeless, for example—and that when they feel enough of them aren’t being killed, they’ll send in soldiers to murder the inhabitants of entire apartment buildings.

The First Purge may take place chronologically before its sequels, but what it gives us is more of the same. The film does mix up the formula in some ways. Unfortunately, these changes are by and large for the worse. It edges away from horror and more towards action, favoring shootouts to scares. The latter are in short supply. And, while the Purge series has never been a particularly subtle franchise, The First Purge takes things to heretofore uncharted levels of “Hey guys, we’re doing political commentary here. D’ya get it?” There’s a scene where white people shoot up a black church in an echo of 2015’s horrific Charleston shooting, and another where white Purge participants dressed as cops loom over a bleeding black man.

Does The First Purge deserve some leeway, given we’re living in a time when the President calls immigrants “animals” and children are locked in cages? Sure. Does it deserve enough leeway to cover a scene where a woman is literally grabbed by her pussy?  I’ll have to get back to you on that one.

To its credit, The First Purge is entertaining enough while you’re watching it. Y’lan Noel (“Insecure”) is solid as Dmitri, a local drug kingpin who’s gradually drawn into the protector role Frank Grillo filled inAnarchy and Election Day. And seeing a bunch of guys in KKK masks get mown down is cathartic, though given the movie’s desire to make ham-fisted political statements, its glorification of gun violence—as long as the guns are in the “right” hands—is eyebrow-raising. But the more you think about The First Purge, the less it holds together. There are so many characters that the movie has trouble keeping track of them all. Some disappear for long stretches, while another—played by Melonie Diaz, one of the movie’s bigger names—disappears fifteen minutes in with zero explanation. This is one to purge from your memory.

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