THE PURGIN' EMPIRE
THE FIRST PURGE (15)
Director: Gerard McMurray
Screenplay: James DeMonaco
Review: RJ Bland
It's quite incredible to think that the original Purge movie – starring Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey – was only released in 2013. Since then, we've had three further additions to the series, which by my maths, makes it nearly a yearly event. Much has changed since then, both in terms of the style and focus of the franchise itself as well as the political climate not only in the US, but across the world. What started out as a home invasion flick that played on the fears of white suburban America has become something much bigger and wider in its scope, a dystopian vision of the future which, much like the recent TV adaptation of Margaret's Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, feels slightly more plausible every year.
Leaving the politics aside (as it's something we'll touch upon later), from a filmic perspective, The Purge has become a Blumhouse staple. The first film was a huge financial success despite the lukewarm reception it received. But what excited producers more than anything was the potential of the concept. All crime is legalised for a 12 hour period. What would happen? It's an intriguing philosophical debate and it's an idea that can be explored by a plethora of different characters in a multitude of settings and situations. The possibilities are endless – and it's why we will undoubtedly get more films and a TV series too. But how did all this madness begin? It's referenced in previous films but we've never got a proper look at the origin story of The Purge universe (I'll refrain from calling it 'The Purgiverse'...oh wait I just did!). Well, all is explained in The First Purge.
A brief prologue informs us of how exactly the NFFA (New Founding Fathers of America) came into power. It wasn't a blood filled revolution or a Gillead style overthrow of central government. Turns out they were voted in due to voter dissatisfaction. An economy in free-fall, rising unemployment and an opioid crisis are all key factors as to why this new political force seized control of the keys to the Whitehouse. Tackling these issues is something that previous governments have failed to do and so the NFFA seek a more drastic and extreme answer to the problems that the country faces. Enter behavioural scientist Dr May Updale (Marisa Tomei), who has devised a social experiment where for 12 hours, citizens will be allowed to purge and release their inhibitions in any way they choose. The NFFA are on board and proudly announce that Staten Island will be the testing ground. The hard up inhabitants of the beleaguered island are offered money to stay for the duration of the experiment, whilst a number of people are admitted to the island with the promise of money if they do some purgin'. After all, the government don't want the event to be a damp squib and are determined that there will be at least some killing. We are then introduced to a selection of Staten Islanders who have all decided to stay put. Drug dealer Dmitri vows to defend his turf and product from any potential purgers whilst his ex Nya joins her friends Dolores, Luisa and Selina in a church to wait out the night. Her younger brother Isaiah on the other, unbeknown to his sister, plans on doing some purging himself – seeking revenge on a nasty son of a bitch called 'Skeletor' who roughed him up earlier in the day.
The First Purge is about as overtly political as you can get when it comes to genre movies. In the 50's we may have had films about mutants and radiation that tapped into Cold War paranoia but here the message is much more direct. In a country divided more than ever, this feels like the vision of an escalation of current problems and although it all still feels a 'little far fetched', that line is becoming blurrier and murkier. Black vs white, rich vs poor, violence vs pacifism. These are themes and issues not exclusively attributable to the US, but it feels particularly fitting for the time we currently live in. References to the NRA and Donald Trump (that scene is about as on the nose as it can get!) are indications of not just an exploration of the current political environment, but also a comment on them as well. Oddly though, whilst the idea of class and race repression feels apt, the films own philosophy falls down a little when they answer to the problem of violence seems to be...more violence. Although if the answer was anything else, we'd have a very different movie...
The First Purge is also another shift away from the horror origins of the series to political sci-fi/action territory. This is a violent movie make no mistake. Necks are slashed, people are blown up and stabbed repeatedly. However James DeMonaco's script doesn't actually really include much horror and director Gerard McMurray doesn't seem to fussed about building up atmosphere or scares, but then I don't think that's the intention. Sure people wear masks and have creepy contact lenses but this film feels more like some precursor to Escape from New York than a genre flick. For a film with so much bloodshed it feels a little less thrilling – or unsettling - than it should. When the action starts about 30 mins in, there isn't much of a let up and the effect is a little numbing. We get a slightly ramped up finale in a tower block but until then the film struggles to move through the gears a little.
The leads all do their best. Lex Scott Davis stands out as the dreadlocked activist who has turned her life around whilst British actor Jovian Wade and Y'lan Nole are both watchable too. The bad guys however are your usual mixture of faceless politicians and racists. You have to feel a little sorry for Marisa Tomei who was given a rather baffling role too. 'What have I done?' she asks herself when people actually start getting murdered in droves. What did you expect, lady?!
Saying that, it's still a fun ride and although it doesn't reach the heights of Anarchy, it's still worth checking out if you're a Purge fan and want to see 100 minutes of mindless violence. It also does a neat job of setting up the mythology of the series and although the film isn't as scary as it perhaps should be, the one thing that unsettles more than any other is the feeling that although this all still feels like science fiction, it's a warning of the kind of place we may be heading...