The Purge is a series that I wasn’t really interested in before this. The idea behind the series is strong, but the first film was just a bog standard home invasion film with a novel reason why the police don’t turn up and that really killed my interest in the series, the only other thing related to The Purge I’d seen before this being the Rick and Morty episode parodying The Purge. However, I started to hear that the sequels to The Purge started to get more into the politics, dealing with the class and race issues that should have been the focus from the start. Then I started seeing the marketing for The First Purge, which made the film explicitly anti-Trump and the sense of catharsis I wanted from an anti-Trump action film led me to give this film a chance. I have to say, I made the right call as I was pleasantly surprised by this film.
The film takes place in an alternate version of America, which isn’t too far off the real America, with a far right wing party, the NFFA being elected into power with the support of the NRA, who decide to hold a behavioural experiment to see whether they can reduce crime rates for the rest of the year by allowing people to have one night where all crime is legal, with Staten Island chosen as the location for the experiment, with the residents being offered $5000 if they stay and more if they take part. The film focuses on two characters caught up in the experiment, Dmitri, a drug kingpin, and Nya, a community activist, who stay on Staten Island to protect people. It soon becomes clear though that the true motivations for the NFFA to enact the Purge are more sinister than they let on. Now the main thing that works about the film is the sense of anger it has. There’s a righteous anger flowing throughout the film focused on how little care is given to minorities and the poor. It’s made abundantly clear throughout the film that the whole reason the NFFA approved the Purge was as a form of population control, choosing not to do anything that would help the poor since it would raise taxes, believing that killing them is the best solution. It’s why Staten Island is a perfect location for the film, the high black and Latino population making the class and race disparity clear. The anger over the fact that those in power believe murder is the best solution is palpable throughout the film and it gives the film a lot of fire. It also has a lot to say about who would use the Purge to commit acts of violence. For the residents of Staten Island, they mostly use the Purge as an excuse to throw parties without fear of the police showing up and most of the crimes are things like looting and minor vandalism. Those who do commit the violent crimes are characters already established to be sociopaths and psychopaths and when it’s made clear that there aren’t enough of those people living in Staten Island, that’s when we see private militias and white supremacists make their appearance. It’s hear that we get clear parallels to Nazis and the alt-right, with tiki torches and Nazi style trenchcoats and uniforms being seen, alongside the obvious KKK sheets. We even get direct references to Trump, the President essentially saying that he’ll ‘Make America Great Again’ and a reference to the Access Hollywood tape which I will not quote here. This brings the subtext of the other films front and centre and is a much needed piece of catharsis in this time.
The performances are solid for the most part. Lex Scott Davis as Nya effectively shows the caring nature of the character and her anger over the Purge and concern for her brother is shown effectively. Y’lan Noel as Dmitri meanwhile shows that, even though Dmitri is a ruthless drug lord, there is still good in him, making sure to show that he does not want to take part in the Purge and he shows a solid sense of loyalty throughout the film. Jovian Wade is solid as Isaiah, Nya’s brother, showing a pretty damaged psyche of someone who is tempted to join the Purge, along with his fear over falling into the cycle of violence he’s surrounded by. There are also solid performances from Mugga and Romti Paul, whilst Luna Lauren Velez, Melonie Diaz and Marisa Tomei feel wasted, although Tomei gets some solid moments in her role as the person who devised the Purge.
On a technical level, Gerard McMurray shows himself to be a solid action director, effectively staging the key scenes, giving a clear sense of geography to Staten Island and the buildings within it that helps to build tension, with one scene being fairly similar to Attack the Block in terms of how it is staged. The use of colour is effective as well, through the use of fire and bright whites to make it clear who the true villains are. The film also gives proper justification for the use of costumes and masks throughout the film, being used to hide the fact that mercenaries were being sent in to enact population control.
Overall, The First Purge was a pleasant surprise. It takes a premise that was wasted in the first film and injects it with much needed anger and righteousness, making it especially relevant in a world where Donald Trump is President. This is a case of the right film coming along at the right time. It may not connect with a lot of people, and I’m already seeing the alt-right decry the film as race baiting SJW garbage but those people should be ignored, The First Purge is a much needed piece of catharsis at this time.
My Rating: 4/5