Purge and Purify: Experiencing ‘The First Purge’

After The Purge: Election Year (2016), it was unclear exactly where, if anywhere, the franchise could go.  Unusual for a low-budget horror movie franchise, these movies were genuine blockbuster hits, raking in North of $100 million each at the box office guaranteed their continuation well past the supposed closed-book ending of the third movie.  The only question was whether they would move the series forward by exploring the post-Purge fallout hinted at during the final moments of Election Year or take a backwards glance at the dozens of unexplored Purge nights that occurred during the New Founding Father’s reign.

Further complicating matters was the exit of franchise writer-director James DeMonaco, who had until now been responsible for these increasingly politically charged (and increasingly good) satirical horror movies.  Although The Purge (2013) was an otherwise forgettable home invasion flick with an enticing hook, DeMonaco took the film’s numerous criticisms to heart and turned the franchise around with its follow-up, Purge: Anarchy (2014), which singlehandedly transformed the surprise hit from the year before into a powerhouse action-horror franchise.  And with the series already moving on from both his direct guidance and his magnum opus Election Year, it was ultimately uncertain what else there was to dredge up from these movies.

As it turns out, there was nothing at all to worry about.  Although the director chair was turned over to newcomer Gerard McMurray, DeMonaco returned as both the film’s writer and one of its producers, along with savvy genre producer Jason Blum and a magnetic cast of unknown actors more than capable of carrying the franchise through its uncertain transitional period.

In this franchise outing, we look back on the events of the very first Purge Night — then simply called “The Experiment” — in which the newly elected New Founding Fathers implement a policy of twelve uninterrupted hours of lawlessness on Staten Island.  Uncertain of what’s going to happen gang leaders vow to sit out from the night’s festivities, community activists plead with their neighbors to abstain from violence and the poorest of the poor are maliciously incentivized to stay on the island despite the calculated danger it will put them through (and with the promise of even greater financial compensation if they actively participate in criminal activities themselves).

In a lot of ways, The First Purge (2018) is the Ant-Man (2015) of the horror franchise.  Both movies serve to reset the series’ stakes to more reasonable levels after the show-stopping blowout of their immediate predecessors.  Logistically, there was never any way for this franchise to “top” Election Year: the final purge night amidst a contentious election that eventually saw its repeal, built up to by each of the three previous installments (in terms of narrative, returning characters and theme) and which hit theaters during a once-in-a-lifetime release window in which real-world events uncannily mirrored those of the film itself (only, as it turned out, with a considerably more pessimistic outcome than its big-screen counterpart).  It was, both by design and by circumstance, a franchise high that could realistically never be matched.

But in a shockingly canny and restrained move by McMurray, DeMonaco, Blum and everybody involved, it didn’t try to.  It brought the whole concept back to zero by refocusing the latest instalment on the very first Purge night: one where (at least to the characters), the outcome was unknowable and the newly limited setting was near-claustrophobic (at least after L.A. and D.C.), allowing for a much more intimate-feeling (and dread inducing) night of mayhem.

What’s more is that The First Purge doubles down on everything that had made the series until now so memorable.  Rather than a couple of white protagonists surrounding by a large cast of minorities, the entire cast — minus the racist New Founding Fathers and their on-the-ground shock troops — are non-white, so much so that Indiewire (incorrectly) asserted that the resulting production was an outright blaxsploitation film.

The colorful new cast of characters that we’re left with includes a fiery community activist (Lex Scott Davis), her baby-faced, drug-dealing brother (Joivan Wade), a conflicted gang leader suspicious of the New Founding Father’s Staten Island experiment (Y’lan Noel) and a wacked-out coke fiend looking to kill as many people as he possibly can (Rotimi Paul), among others.  Without exception, every actor is revelatory and every character is fascinating: running the gamut of gleeful participant to wary observer to firebrand protector of the helpless citizens caught in its wake.  Special praise needs to be given to Y’lan Noel, who proves himself to be a born action hero in the vein of an off-color John McClane: custom-built for the action-packed confrontation with armed militants when it’s time to throw down against them, but more than capable for the quiet, character-driven dialog sequences that take up the majority of his time on-screen until then.  If there is any justice in the world, he will find himself the headliner of a blockbuster action franchise in the model of Die Hard, Terminator and Rambo just as soon as some major studio can mail him a script for one.  He is a tremendous find for Jason Blum and this will doubtless not be the last we see of his character Dimitri in this franchise.

Formerly a minor subplot in the over-stuffed Anarchy, The First Purge‘s main focus is on the government subsidization of purging during their inaugural experiment.  Whereas later films focus mainly on the dangers posed by regular citizens against one another, the major narrative thrust here is that people are hesitant to wholesale abandon their lifelong morality right away.  Most people who haven’t fled the city or found someplace safe to hold up for the night are going to decadent Purge block parties, where the most scandalous thing going down is some sensual dance moves.  Most people who take to lawless activities mostly just limit themselves to the small-scale crimes that people have joked about doing since the first movie came out five years ago: vandalism, robbery and public sex.  Even those who take to the streets with murderous intent, like Joivan Wade’s Isaiah, can’t quite bring themselves to go through with outright murder, and only the drugged-out Skeletor takes to killing wholeheartedly.

When it becomes obvious that Staten Island simply isn’t purging in numbers high enough to justify the already-planned nationwide expansion of the experiment, state-sanctioned death squads are called in, disguised as local gangs, to shore up the numbers.  Disguised as Nazis and Klansman and other hyper-violent racist groups (in sharp relief against the generally abstaining actual gangs from the neighborhood), they target churches, block parties and housing complexes, intent on killing as many people as they can before the sun comes up.  Not only is the concept satisfactorily expanded to feature-length in this prequel (giving hope that similarly tested ideas from Anarchy will show up in the future), but strongly reinforces, along with its explicitly Black cast of protagonists, the themes of systemic right-wing racism that have been a mainstay of the series since 2013.

When all is said and done, The First Purge is as close to Election Year as possible in terms of its raw quality.  It provides an exciting expansion to the Purge timeline, a groundbreaking new star in actor Y’lan Noel and demonstrable proof that there are still interesting places to take this franchise in the future.  It is a definite must-see for anybody who, like me, is forced to endure the disgusting real-world politics of the current administration and finds themselves in need of a little catharsis.

Rating:  4/5

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