As we’ve learned from the first three entries in the Purge franchise, “the Purge” is an annual night of lawlessness sanctioned by the United States government.
Instituted by the reigning right-wing New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) Party, it’s ostensibly a method for allowing citizens to cleanse themselves of their fury. In a nation wracked by economic woes, unchecked crime and rampant drug use, this evening of barbarism is sold to the public as a “societal catharsis,” even as our despotic domestic powers-that-be use it as a covert way to eradicate the supposedly greatest burdens on American life (i.e. minorities) and, in doing so, achieve a form of population control. It’s anarchy in service of racist/classist genocide.
And as The First Purge now reveals, its original architect was none other than…Marisa Tomei?
That’s right: the actress who won an Oscar for My Cousin Vinny is the scientist responsible for devising the Purge, albeit not as a means of realizing the aforementioned goals. Rather, Tomei’s Dr. May Updale—a look of blank boredom plastered across her face throughout this thankless role—has joined forces with the NFFA because she truly believes that uninhibited murder and depravity may result in a greater cultural good. How that theory might exactly work is, unsurprisingly, left pretty vague by director Gerard McMurray’s dim-witted prequel. But her conviction remains the seed from which the mayhem of Blumhouse’s exploitative franchise has sprung. And when—upon comprehending that her work has been perverted by NFFA fascists who care only about eliminating “undesirables”—she exclaims to herself, “What have I done?”, this latest chapter in the ongoing saga delivers an ideal bit of bonkers B-movie hilarity.
Alas, that unintentional-comedy spark is a fleeting bright spot amidst this leaden mix of tame pseudo-horror and been-there, done-that provocation. The First Purge’s big narrative revelation is that the NFFA isn’t interested in healing all of America. On the contrary, when faced with low user participation in their maiden Purge “experiment,” carried out over 12 hours on Staten Island by people being paid (welfare-style!) to partake, the NFFA sends in hit squads of white-power mercenaries, armed KKK members, and S&M neo-Nazis to exterminate the black and Hispanic populations. Arriving in a 2018 dominated by the ugly rhetoric and conduct of President Donald Trump—whose trademark red MAGA hat was employed as artwork for the film’s first theatrical poster—that bombshell is tailor-made to elicit a heated response. Except that it’s the exact same narrative revelation used by 2016’s The Purge: Election Year, which makes it come off as so much tepid regurgitation.
Worse, whereas Election Year at least had the guts to partially engage with its present moment—via a Hillary Clinton proxy thrust into the Purge after being targeted by the NFFA’s consortium of silver-haired white male leaders—The First Purge retreats to some undefined future-past. In doing so, it fails to present us with a Trumpian figurehead for the Purge (despite clearly wanting viewers to make such connections), and thus avoids truly digging into our contemporary divisiveness. A shot of a battered African-American man crawling to first base on a baseball diamond while white cops stalk him to the sounds of “America the Beautiful” is certainly a highly charged image in our present reality. But like so much of McMurray’s film, it’s a superficial gesture, divorced from any genuine reckoning with what’s going on today in rural, suburban or urban areas.
It’s the last of those that’s the setting for The First Purge—namely, the city blocks around a rundown housing project that’s home to Purge protestor Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and her brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade), who, much to his sister’s chagrin, sells drugs for kingpin Dmitri (Insecure’s Y’lan Noel). Nya and Dmitri were once an item until she decided she couldn’t stand his criminal life, and at the opening of this tale—written by Purge creator James DeMonaco, here handing over directing duties for the first time—she chastises him for losing the “courage” to give up violence for a more noble life. That conversation suggests that, by night’s end, Dmitri will realize that true heroism involves rejecting his most brutal base instincts. In the face of the Purge’s inhumanity, the film teases, he’ll discover his own humanity.
Or not! The First Purge presents Dmitri as the noble “soldier” savior of persecuted minorities, replete with a late set piece that renders him Staten Island’s very own John Wick. So much for transcending the Purge. Positing a vicious gang leader (who doesn’t learn anything, really) as the moral center of this universe should be the basis for bleak satire. Unfortunately, McMurray and DeMonaco—the former’s handheld visuals a far cry from his more assured Burning Sands, and the latter’s script a mess of clichés—prove one-note storytellers at every turn. Everyone here is transparently good or evil in ways that one can predict from the outset. That includes Skeletor (Rotimi Paul), a cackling, facially-scarred wannabe-Joker who stalks his prey (including Isaiah, whom he’s randomly targeted for death) like a slasher-film bogeyman—say, Michael Myers, whose face is (cross-promotion alert!) spied in a background poster for Blumhouse’s forthcoming Halloween reboot-sequel.
The First Purge is preachy in both dialogue and plotting, and devoid of the ludicrous extremeness that might energize—or complicate—its politics. Just as frustratingly, it lacks any hint of suspense. As with its recent predecessors, the film is of an action-horror sort, heavy emphasis on action, with fistfights and shootouts dominating its 97-minute runtime. A stairwell skirmish between Dmitri and a couple of Caucasian gunmen wearing blackface masks gets close to providing some Atomic Blonde-ish thrills. Noel, though, is short on the charismatic flair necessary to elevate his ludicrous archetype to the realm of pulp cartoonishness; instead, he’s just a second-rate hero who turns out to be laughably adept with a gun and a knife.
For the most part, this origin story continues to make the Purge—a concept theoretically so ripe with social-satire possibilities that it’ll soon become a TV show—feel woefully small. Reductively using its central conceit for blunt nightmares about tyrannical oppression and anti-fascist revolution, it further suggests that the entire series is a clever premise that’s yet to develop into a legitimately incendiary, exciting button-pusher.