The Purge films have always felt like the plots were better than the movies themselves. The original Purge movie teased an awesome premise, but we ended up with a pretty standard home invasion film. The second film teased an open world where we would be dropped in the action, but the budget limited it’s scope. The third film had a fun, timely plot, but again was limited by its budget.
Similarly, the first film in the series felt more like a fantasy set in a possible future. The second film made things feel closer to reality. The third film felt more like a probable future as opposed to the possibility posed in the first film. Now, with The First Purge, the forth in the actual film series, we’re just about caught up to reality. While these films are inherently political, it doesn’t matter which side of the political spectrum. I think we’re all pretty unhappy and afraid of what ever “other” we don’t like or disagree with.
The First Purge so brilliantly exposes and exploits that, making this film really feel the most timely. If the title didn’t give it away, this film is set before the events of the other films and explores the hours leading up to and throughout the first Purge. The film begins with what looks like a reshoot and introduces us to one of my favorite characters in the film, Skeletor. Very rarely in such an urban city set film do we get such a deliciously over the top villain. Urban films typically are about the horrors of the real world. Monsters are saved for the suburbs. While we do have a very city-feeling reality horror film here, we still get tossed a ridiculous monstrous villain in addition.
After being introduced to the NFFA who are “making America great again” (their words, not mine) by creating the Purge, we are introduced to our main characters, Dmitri (D) and Nya. Something about the performances by these actors, I instantly like them. Even though D is not immediately likable because he’s the big gangster in town, I can’t take my eyes off of him when he’s on screen. The dude oozes charisma. Nya is fighting the good fight, leading rallies condemning the Purge. All the while, her brother is getting mixed up in D’s drug dealing gang, leading to a scuffle with the recently released Skeletor.
We meet some of the other residents of Staten Island before the Purge is tested on them. All this character stacking early on reminds me of those urban set ensemble movies from the 90s like Meteor Man and the like. Early on, this movie has completely won me over. Meteor Man is obviously a bit of a silly comparison, but is somewhat fitting because director, Gerard McMurray, taking over for series creator James DeMonaco, has a directorial style that reminds me of early Robert Townsend crossed heavily with early Ernest Dickerson.
When the sirens for the Purge are sounded, we’re dropped into a world that feels very Tales from the Crypt, reminiscent of Dickerson’s own Demon Knight. Isaiah, Nya’s aforementioned younger brother, wanders the street in search of revenge on Skeletor who wronged him earlier. Nya thinks he’s skipped town all the while she is gathering pacifist residents in a nearby church. D is trying to lay low during the Purge, but one member of his gang has drawn him out of hiding. Now, he’s on the street ready for a fight. Once Nya gets word of Isaiah’s true whereabouts, she takes to the streets to save him.
Now, all of our main characters, who by now we’re heavily invested in, are in the thick of the Purge. However, for the first part of the evening. The Purge has only led to public sex, looting, and parties. These were not the results the NFFA had hoped for. In comes a government instituted militia, in a timely and effective move, decked out like Nazis, the KKK, and in minstrel show blackface. All hell breaks loose in Staten Island. While this pleases the NFFA, the poorer classed citizens of the island have fight back or be slaughtered.
See, in another clever turn of the movie, the lower class citizens have been baited to stay in town during the Purge, because the NFFA have paid them handsomely to stay in town so the government can study them and the effects of the Purge. The script for this film is razor sharp. I’ve always been a fan of DeMonaco’s writing chops, but I haven’t been a fan of his shaky cam, documentary inspired, visual style. Marrying a biting script with McMurray’s aces directing, makes for the first Purge film I’ve really been a fan of.
Now, there is obviously, like I mentioned before, the overt political commentary. Since it’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer, for every moment that works, there’s another one that causes an eye roll. Later in the film, when the militia has arrived, there’s a shot of militia members dressed up like police officers beating a black young man to death in a sports stadium while the National anthem plays. The scene is gut wrenching. But earlier in the film, there’s a scene where Purgers try to pull Nya into a sewer from underneath her, pulling her by the crotch, to which she responds, “pussy grabbing motherfucker”. I winced and rolled my eyes pretty hard. There’s just a better way to do that. There is one slightly more subtle moment later in the film that works extraordinarily well. When Nya’s building is under attack by the militia, the group terrorizing the building is led by a masked man in a German SS style outfit. When he takes off his mask after having his plans thwarted by Dmitri, who has turned good to save the neighborhood, the SS militia man looks like “cold dead hands” era Charlton Heston. Not only is this effective and unsettling as hell, but Y’lan Noel who plays D really shines as a hero.
I do admire this film’s brazenness overall though. In today’s terrifying age, at least this movie is banging the drum loudly to call out some bullshit. Hollywood typically likes to skate around it in an effort to please everybody. This film will not please everybody. Trumpers are going to be offended. But we need offensive movies, especially in the horror genre. It’s a genre meant to push buttons and make us look at the darkness within ourselves. We don’t have to agree with everything we see, but an effective product will make us ask ourselves why we disagree.
Overall, The First Purge is a well made, sharply written action thriller with some very good performances from the whole ensemble. Director Gerard McMurray perfectly channels 90s era urban films and the likes of Robert Townsend and Ernest Dickerson. The horror is very real in the film, and honestly there’s nothing more satisfying than watching an island rise up and eviscerate some nazis.
The First Purge is available on Digital now, and on 4K ULTRA HD, BLU-RAY™, DVD and ON DEMAND tomorrow, October 2nd
from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment