The First Purge stars Lex Scott Davis as Nya, an activist opposed to a new social experiment in crime. The New Founding Fathers of America, a right wing political party, has come to power, replacing Republicans and Democrats in the American power structure and they believe they have a solution for America’s crime problem. The idea comes from a scientist named Dr. Updale, Marisa Tomei, who isn’t convinced her idea is a cure-all.
The experiment which will come to be called ‘The Purge’ entails allowing people the opportunity to get out their pent up aggression with a night of legalized violence. For the experiment, the NFFA will cordon off Staten Island, New York and pay residents and visitors $5000.00 to stay on the Island and take part in 12 hours of legalized debauchery of all types. For her part, Nya believes The Purge is an attack on the poor and oh, how right she is, even if she doesn’t know it yet.
As the experiment of The Purge unfolds in this already crime riddled area, things begin with a strange peace. Few, if any, residents are actually engaging in criminal behavior. The NFFA has a lot riding on the night being an example of the effectiveness of their new rule and when things appear to be working in favor of the better angels of our nature, aside from a murderous crackhead named Skeletor, the NFFA decide to tip the scales a little with some outside help.
Soon, the streets of Staten Island are littered with bodies as the world watches on news networks supplied a ringside seat via drones that capture the action from on high. There is also the added attraction of first person perspective on the most gruesome crimes as some Island residents have been fitted with special contact lens cameras to capture the mayhem. The contacts are also a neat visual to help differentiate the truly dangerous from the endangered.
The First Purge is the fourth film in The Purge franchise, though the first in the continuity of the story which began being told in 2014 with Ethan Hawke and Lena Headley. The original The Purge posited an almost lackadaisical air surrounding the nationwide mayhem known as The Purge. Families discuss The Purge with the urgency of going to the supermarket or the video store. By the time of that film, The Purge is just another part of life.
The First Purge enlivens the franchise by taking it back to the beginning. Director Gerald MacMurray, taking the directorial reigns from franchise creator James Demonaco, who did stick around to write the script for this outing, embraces the social satire of the original conceit more blatantly than the first three films in the franchise. Indeed, MacMurray’s take on The Purge concept is straight ahead satirical polemic with the visual style of blaxsploitation movies of the early to mid-seventies.
There is no hiding the politics at play here, the NRA gets name-checked as the financial backers of the New Founding Fathers of America and a scene where Nya is assaulted by a sewer dwelling, masked stranger contains a reference to President Trump that is sharply pointed. All of the New Founding Fathers of America seen on screen are doughy white guys reminiscent of a current White House casting call.
The First Purge pull no punches in its social commentary with scenes ripped from recent American history from the streets of smoky streets of Ferguson circa 2014 to the unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia, just last last year. Though tiki torches are surprisingly circumspect, there are men in Klan robes and men in uniforms reminiscent of the German S. S that are as striking as ever and similarly worn by hate groups at the Charlottesville riots in real life.
If the characters and storytelling had been as pointed and forthright as the social satire, we’d be talking about a much better movie. Unfortunately, the characters in The First Purge wind up underwritten in favor of the atmosphere of dread and, as mentioned, the high level of social satire. That’s not to say that Lex Scott Davis or Joivan Wade, who plays her brother in the movie or Mugga, who plays a Nya’s neighbor, are bad actors. Rather, they’re just pawns of the plot rather than people whose action drives the plot.
The editing of The First Purge is also a tad suspect, contributing to a choppy style that can be a tad hard to follow and not all that pleasant to look at. The Cinematography and production design appear to be areas where the filmmakers were attempting to save money as the film’s visual style rarely stands out, aside from one scene that appears to be a full-on homage to the low budget aesthetic of a Gordon Parks or Melvin Van Peebles.
Newcomer Y’Lan Noel plays drug dealer turned leader Dmitri and gets all of the best visuals in the movie. Late in the film, as Dmitri and his crew are traveling the streets battling the mercenaries of the Klan, the Alt-Right and the NFFA, Dmitri turns full on action hero and MacMurray films him like a combination of Shaft, Bruce Lee and Killmonger. He even gets to be John McClain for a little while as he makes his way through an apartment building picking off bad guys one floor at a time.
The homages and the social satire are the best and boldest part of The First Purge which is an otherwise middling affair. The characters are thin, the dialogue is often stilted and awkward, especially the supposedly ‘Street’ dialogue which plays the hits of all the worst cliches of gang speak. I want to embrace big parts of The First Purge but too much of the movie is too subpar for me to fully celebrate what works.