THE FIRST PURGE (Dir. by Gerard McMurray, 97 minutes, USA, 2018)
BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC The Purge series has had an interesting trajectory throughout the last five years. While the first film was an interesting high concept meditation on race in a near dystopian future where one night of the year for 12 hours, any crime including murder is legal. The consistently profitable franchise now on its fourth outing has afforded writer James DeMonaco the ability to not so subtly comment the state of America. For example, the last film Election Year featured a blatant stand in for Trump using the Purge to attempt to assassinate his female opponent in the election; who was running on the platform of ending The Purge. With the American tradition appearing to have come to an end in the wake of the events of Election, we are now in full-on prequel mode for this latest installment.
The First Purge quickly sets up how The New Founding Fathers of America came into power, as a refuge for the disenfranchised republicans and democrats, to mend a country in disorder after suffering an economic collapse. To try and quell this unrest the NFFA offer a trial run of The Purge that will take place on Staten Island as a social experiment to see if 12 hours of lawlessness will return balance to the impoverished community. At least that is what they are telling the media. To incentivize participation, the impoverished residents are paid $5,000 to stay in Staten Island, and more if they actually kill someone. After the last film where we learned that the night was simply a tool for the government to cull inner city populations, it’s interesting to see here how the original Purge was total a failure in the beginning. When the NFFA quickly realizes that simply offering to pay poor people isn’t enough of an incentive to get them to abandon all morality and kill each other, they go to plan B.
Rather than admit failure the NFFA sends in teams of mercenaries posing as white supremacists to do their work for them, a move that unexpectedly triggers another tradition of the night. It’s here, any and all subtext is just thrown out the window as Staten Island is invaded by mercenaries in blackface masks and dressed as the Klu Klux Klan. It’s then up to a gang of well-armed drug dealers lead by the charismatic Dimitri (Y’Lan Noel), to try and stop the invaders and hopefully survive the night. Superficially it’s a return to roots for the series after the politically charged Election, under the surface however, the film has a lot to say about where we stand as a country. There is a palpable sense of disbelief in the film as the residents of Staten Island simply can’t comprehend this is happening or how we got to here as a people. Sound familiar.
The most terrifying thing about The First Purge is this film grounds its premise just enough in the now this time, to make it feel completely plausible and just within our grasp. Filled with shocking, racially and politically charged imagery, it’s a film that doesn’t hold anything back, but maybe that’s what we need right now. If Get Out was a firm nudge, Purge is a bucket of cold water, meant to wake us the hell up. Watching the film with a crowd that was screaming, yelling and clapping along with what transpired on screen struck me as how it probably felt to watch the original Planet of the Apes during the civil rights struggle. We weren’t just being entertained, we were witnessing the Trump administration get their comeuppance, thanks to a band of badass drug dealers — and it was glorious. It’s the kind of cathartic release only a film like this can deliver and the dangerous kind of art that transcends the screen into ideas.