For a franchise that began life as a movie that could’ve been a bottle episode on a low-rent TV show, The Purge has come an awfully long way.
The first film was a simple home invasion story with a dystopian twist – for one night a year, all crime in the USA is legal and citizens are encouraged to vent their spleens in any way they choose, including murder. From that humble beginning however, The Purge movies have become a platform for series creator and writer James DeMonaco to take aim at social injustice.
He’s about as subtle as a ballpeen hammer to the groin in his approach, but over the last two films DeMonaco has used his films to highlight racism, how the rich eat the poor, how economic unfairness pounds the disadvantaged down and how politicians use nationalistic sentiment to rule the mob. The First Purge is the first film in the series that DeMonaco hasn’t directed himself, but his presence in the screenplay is undeniable.
This prequel film opens with a montage in which the United States is riddled with unemployment and crime and the lack of initiative shown by the Republicans and Democrats has seen the rise of a party calling itself The New Founding Fathers Of America (NFFA). The NFFA is about to run what it’s calling ‘The Experiment’; the brainchild of Dr May Updale (Marisa Tomei), this psychological exercise purports to make all crime legal on Staten Island for a night, to see how people react. Initially, things run smoothly – Staten Island’s inhabitants seem more up for a party than bloodshed – until it’s revealed that the NFFA plans to co-opt The Experiment and use armed forces to kill off as many of the poor-income neighbourhood’s population as possible.
Trapped on the island are Nya (Lex Scott Davis), a dreadlocked activist, D’mitri (Y’lan Noel) Nya’s drug-dealer ex-boyfriend, Isaiah (Joivan Wade), Nya’s idiot brother – who right on cue lands everyone in trouble by behaving like an idiot – and Delores (Mugga) the matriarch of the local tower block. Most of the characters come across more as archetypes than fully rounded people so their progression through the plot holds few surprises. The only outlier in this regard is Skeletor (Rotimi Paul) the local junkie who looks like Lebron James would if he dressed up as Golem for Halloween; played by Paul as a psychotic skittering freak, Skeletor is a genuinely disturbing presence throughout the film.
Whereas the last two movies in this series hinted at a shadowy government conspiracy as the reason for the purge, The First Purge is unequivocal; the exercise exists primarily to allow the government to kill as many poor people of colour as possible. The Staten Island locals soon find themselves overrun with mercenaries wearing garish masks and members of the Ku Klux Klan and the violence meter shoots through the roof.
Squeamish viewers should take note: The First Purge is probably the most violent instalment in this series to date. Things roll off to a slow start, but by the final act – in which D’mitri ploughs through a tower bock filled with enemies like a walking slaughterhouse – audience members are likely to have lost count of the number gunfights they’ve witnessed and throats they’ve seen slashed.
There are also several scenes that eerily recall racially charged events such as the neo-nazi rallies in Charlottesville and the Rodney King beating. One has to question if these images belong in a film whose central premise is this bonkers. The First Purge takes the headlines from Trump’s America and amps them up to disturbing levels. It’s not subtle and it’s not for the faint-hearted, but it’s effective as all hell.