Movie Review: The First Purge
Finally a worthwhile prequel! The First Purge manages to find its footing by focusing on character, action, and political commentary. Fans looking for nonstop horror might want to stay boarded up at home though.
Well, I watched the last Purge, so I decided to complete the cycle by watching the “first” Purge. Conveniently titled The First Purge. I thought the last outing was unfocused, trying to be too many things. It also had bad pacing and a plot that negated any quality we got out of the acting. The prequel manages to tighten up the formula, using a svelte hour and a half to let the horror and action elements work in service to the plot. While it isn’t all that groundbreaking, The First Purge retools the franchise into an above average survival flick.
The First Purge (2018)
As America descends into poverty and joblessness, a new political party sweeps into power. The New Founding Fathers of America promise a “New American Dream”. In order to realize that dream (it, much like the cake, is a lie), they first need to reduce America’s population, most notably the poor and the colored. When a social scientist (Marissa Tomei) proposes a test to see if a legalized crime holiday would allow America to purge it’s unrest, the NFFA decide this experiment is the perfect cover for some American as apple pie ethnic cleansing.
The site of the first “experiment”: Staten Island.
They Actually Went Out and Found Some Actors
The very first scene in The First Purge had me rolling my eyes. “Here comes another dumb B-Movie”, it screamed. Then the movie stopped screaming and started talking. It actually had a decent amount to say. And it does so through a level of acting that will make The Purge: Election Year green with envy.
The key element of survival horror is character. You have to root for them: be it for their salvation or their doom. This franchise finally understands that conceit, and it found actors and actresses willing and able to deliver the goods. While I don’t think anyone should be waiting for an Oscar nomination, they were solid straight down the line. The good guys were believable. The baddies stayed in their lane and let this film focus on the good guys.
The only character I didn’t care for was Skeletor, the central delivery device for all the horror in this film. He was overacted, a silly jump-scare generating version of The Candy Man. Thankfully this film did the smart thing and let him run around and kill to his heart’s content… off camera.
Horror Buffs Beware
The First Purge is going to disappoint anyone hoping for horror. It dedicates maybe 20 minutes to scares, and they are all of the jump variety. Having seen only two Purge movies, I can’t guess whether the series was ever truly courting scary movie aficianados, but these last two movies have been solidly about action. This film feels much more like Escape From NY than Silent Hill. While I have no problem with that, it is a case of buyer beware. You aren’t going to leave this film with the heeby jeebies.
Unless existential terror is more your forte. There’s plenty of that here.
While the Purge franchise has always played at political commentary, The First Purge feels the most salient, the most focused… and the most triggering. The films have mostly played at the larger topics: demagoguery, fascism, and religious extremism. This film talks about those, but it crystallizes on one result of those systems: the enabling of white supremacy and the price black and brown bodies pay in America.
This is the first Purge film that James DeMonaco didn’t direct (he still wrote and produced it). Gerrard McMurray mans the director’s chair this time around, and it’s a welcome change. McMurray (who previously collaborated with Ryan Coogler), brings focus, identity, and pathos. We get a more fully realized community thanks to that, which can make the violence that is visited upon them even more upsetting.
And The First Purge has plenty of real world examples to mimic. Pretty much Skeletor is the only violence in this film that hasn’t actually happened in America in the past year (another reason the character doesn’t work). Church shootings, mass murder at recreational gatherings, lynching… this film didn’t have to imagine much. Even the trademark purge masks reflect the current violence in America: Nazi regalia, KKK robes, police and immigration officer uniforms, white militias. Maybe this purge doesn’t seem as silly as the previous ones, because it’s no longer extrapolating about America’s decline. It doesn’t have to.
While the protagonists do get their licks in (often in pretty satisfying ways), some are going to feel like The First Purge is indulging in torture porn. Once again, buyer beware.
This is America
The First Purge isn’t an amazing film. It still has some clunky dialogue (Skeletor, The NFFA), and the scares are pedestrian. Some might also consider the copy-and-pasting of current tragedy tawdry. But I think this film finally gets what makes a night of state-sanctioned violence truly terrifying. It’s so adjacent to the “new normal” in America, that you can finally understand the dread. It’s not a subtle metaphor, but we live in unsubtle times.
I felt that The First Purge does enough this time around to finally be a worthwhile film. It finally gets past escapism and the voyeuristic thrills of previous entries. Whether it did so on its own merits is up for debate; reality did catch up to the art that imitates it in 2018. I gave it the benefit of the doubt. Enough of this film feels earnest enough in its execution, and it came across as a lot less objectifying than Election Year.
There’s a new 10 episode series set in this soft-rebooted franchise coming soon. That might be the real litmus test. Does The Purge go back to being shock-schlock, or does it intend to say something? I hope it’s the latter.