The First Purge (2018)

JULY 3, 2018

GENRE: SURVIVAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

When the last Purge movie, Election Year, was in production and even when it was released, it seemed pretty unlikely we'd ever have to deal with an actual Trump presidency, but the fact that he had gotten that far was already troubling enough. Had Russia not interfered on his behalf and illegitimately gotten him elected, The First Purge might have been a different movie, but even if it was the same it likely wouldn't resonate the way it has/will. While the movie goes out of its way for a moment to make sure it's not a direct slam on the GOP (the series' "New Founding Fathers" are said to have replaced both Democrats AND Republicans), it's hard to forget it's just a fictional story (a light sci-fi one at that) when the actual government is barely any less openly racist and Nazi-esque as the one depicted in it. At least if Hillary won it'd be closer to contrast than lateral move.

As the title suggests, this is a prequel about the first time the government decided that one night a year we could break any law (read: kill people) with almost no restrictions. For the last three movies we've wondered how this all started, and now we know: as an experiment confined to Staten Island. An experiment designed by a woman, in fact - Marisa Tomei plays a psychologist of some sort who comes up with the concept in the tradition of the Stanford Prison experiment or something of that nature, with the government funding it to see if it can really help people release some of their tension and live a relatively crime-free existence for the other 364 days of the year. But as we learn about halfway through, the government doesn't really care if guys like me discover that going outside and smashing some windows or whatever will keep us from going off the rails - they want minorities and poor people to be executed en masse, and find this way is easier than, oh, I dunno, rounding them all up and deporting them. Let's hope 45 is too busy golfing to watch the film.

Our main asshole is the Chief of Staff, played by Patch Darragh (made to resemble Sean Spicer a bit), who is frustrated that no one seems particularly interested in purging at first. Apart from a guy who was already insane and probably would be out killing people that night anyway, and a pair of old (homeless?) ladies who have a grand old time lining their street with homemade bombs made out of teddy bears, the residents of Staten Island don't really seem all that excited to kill each other. Most of them just stay inside their homes or group up at a church, while the rest go so far as to throw an impromptu block party (finally, a non murder crime! We also see a guy try to rob an ATM, but he's killed, natch). So Darragh's character gets pretty pissed off and arranges to have a militia (one that includes KKK members) go in and start killing everyone they find, at which point the movie turns into a standard Purge sequel.

I guess I shouldn't be too surprised by that, since the film is once again written by James DeMonaco, who wrote and directed all of the others. He turned over directorial duties to Gerard McMurray, who is a much stronger director (this entry has more memorable images than the first three combined), but it's clear DeMonaco needs to let others handle the writing as well, as he runs out of ideas early on and even starts cribbing from himself at one point. The film's climax, where antihero Dmitri (Y'lan Noel, who we will be seeing a lot more of after this, I suspect) storms an apartment building to rescue his old flame Nya (Lex Scott Davis) is essentially the same as Purge: Anarchy's extended sequence where the (also hired) militia guys storm the apartment building where that film's protagonists were trying to hide/stay alive. It's bad enough the main complaint about the series is that it leaves so much unexplored, so when it actually starts repeating itself it's almost kind of insulting. Plus, at this point the whole "first time" element feels lost, as no one seems to be particularly shocked that this is really happening (and as always we get little slices of anonymous violence outside; shots that could be from any other entry where the Purge is an annual tradition that people are used to).

And it's a shame, because if the back half was as good as the first, it'd be far and away the best entry in the series. Our new characters aren't exactly the most unique we've ever seen; Dmitri is just another bad guy with a conscience (which extends to his crew; when one is shot and bleeding out, he insists Dmitri just let him die so he can go rescue other people - aww!), and the others are fairly stock as well. But the actors give them more life than the script asked, and we're also never torn away from their perspective to show what's happening to a couple of white idiots who decided to go shopping ten minutes before Purge started (that'd be Anarchy's "heroes"). For those two and the family in the first film, we get the sense that Purge night is the only time they're ever forced to deal with anything scarier than a brief power outage, but here we spend all our time with folks whose lives are shitty enough the rest of the year without having to worry about their government strolling into their homes and legally murdering them. Even Dmitri has some problems; he can't exactly trust anyone in his line of work and his conscience keeps eating at him - when he finds out Nya's younger brother has been working for one of his underlings, you can see he's legitimately upset about it, seeing the kid as a little brother of his own and knowing that he could be in danger.

We also get to see some of how the NFFA got things going. Again, it's just confined to Staten Island, so while we know they eventually go nationwide it's interesting to see that they didn't just spring it on the entire country at once. This gives the film a bit of an Escape from New York flair (the score even apes it directly at one point, so I suspect it's intentional), with everyone locked off and a ticking clock for our heroes' survival. Because of this limited scope, people could have just left the island prior to the bridges being closed off, so they pay these poor/desperate people five thousand bucks a piece to stick around, with added incentives for "participation". Everyone gets a pair of high tech contacts to wear for when they purge, so that they can monitor behavior (because it's a science experiment, of course), and they even survey people asking them why they'd want to purge in the first place. Some prequelitis rears its ugly head from time to time (at one point the NFFA sends drones equipped with machine gun - why did they stop using them? They're pretty useful here!), but given the low budgets of this series I think they did a good job of showing us how it could really come to the level of insanity we saw in the others.

But once the block party is abruptly canceled by the arrival of Skeletor (the aforementioned insane man who - attn Purge Wikia contributors - notches the first ever Purge kill), who starts wiping out some of the revelers, it becomes a pale retread of the other sequels for the most part, as our half dozen or so protagonists find themselves on the streets of their city that's now a war-zone, seeking shelter until the morning. Tomei's character has no part in the third act at all, and the KKK guys might have been more striking had Election Year not already used Nazis in the same context. Usually a prequel is enhanced by having seen the others, but in this case I think the movie would work better if you hadn't already seen the others (well, maybe the first, since the concept was so underutilized it barely mattered anyway). It's like they wasted good ideas and even some of the social commentary on the Grillo entries, making them seem almost second-rate here when they should be at their most meaningful. When Dmitri strangles one of the NFFA's hit squad (who is wearing a blackface faceguard) it's certainly a powerful visual and drives the message home - but it's also the 20th time we've seen someone in a Purge movie get the upper hand over the well-armed attackers out to eradicate them.

I also had trouble with its closing moments, where our survivors walk out in the morning, checking in on their neighbors and such. It's a nice moment - but it also feels a bit mean spirited, as we know that not everything will be OK. The Purge will continue to evolve and get worse for people like them, and they also now have a target on their heads after taking out some of NFFA's death squad. The optimism at the end of the third film felt right, but it didn't quite work here given its prequel nature, and instead I just felt kind of sad knowing the worst was yet to come for these folks, so it was kind of at odds with itself and also what it was trying to say. Am I to infer that good people (and, er, drug dealers) will persevere despite the seemingly insurmountable odds against them? Or that no matter what they do they will always be fucked over? If this was a proper "Purge 4" I'd find it inspiring, like in a "keep fighting the good fight" way, but given that there are at least a dozen full blown Purges ahead of them I simply find myself feeling as miserable for these fictional people as I do for our real life world.

Speaking of the real world, there's only one overt Trump reference in the film, and I wouldn't dare spoil it - I'll only point out that it's amazing, and that after the dialogue makes it clear who they're referencing I urge you to reconsider the person's headgear and where they were located. Otherwise, the only real tie to the non-fictional world we usually try to escape at the multiplexes comes from a reference to the NRA, who are (of course) the backers of the New Founding Fathers. So even though they're *not* the Republicans of today... they're pretty much just the Republicans of today (it's kind of like in Red State where they mention Fred Phelps to make it "clear" that Michael Parks' character wasn't supposed to be him). As before the heroes tend to use smaller guns and improvised weapons as opposed to the rifles used by the villains, but by mentioning the NRA so explicitly (I don't recall them coming up in the others) it tosses the subtlety of this tradition out the window.

Ultimately, it's a film that works best when it's at its least Purge-like, faltering only when it falls back on the now familiar site people walking cautiously around urban alleyways, ducking the murderers running rampant until they get to the next safe spot and the script can cut to someone else doing the same thing. I liked the characters (particularly Dolores, a cranky middle aged woman who is mostly just annoyed by the whole thing) but there are possibly too many of them this time around, and as a result the more interesting ones don't get much time to shine. Tomei in particular must not have been on set for more than a day or two, and Harris (plus his two best buds; they refer to themselves as the Three Stooges) disappears for long stretches as well. Perhaps if they sprung the NFFA rigging the experiment as a twist for the end, it would have been more consistently great. Instead, they tell us this at the halfway point, leaving the rest of the movie with very little surprise or momentum as it makes its way into its depressing outcome (that the experiment was a "success" and will continue). Again if you haven't seen the other sequels this won't be as much of an issue, but I couldn't help but be disappointed that it started out so riveting and ultimately just settled for status quo, saying everything that it had to say early on and then just letting guns do all the talking. Hopefully the upcoming TV series (previewed during the credits, which is tacky AF) or inevitable Purge 5 will be more consistently engaging.

What say you?

P.S. Per the timeline of the series, the first Purge is indeed around 2017 or 2018, but they refrain from naming an exact year. The only clue to what time period it is comes from a poster in Nya's apartment, so keep an eye out. It's a huckster move worthy of Trump himself.

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