Directed by: Gerard McMurray
Premise: A prequel to The Purge series. Set a few years from now, the United States’ government seizes upon the anger and disillusionment of its citizens with a social experiment on Staten Island, New York in which all crime, including murder, is legal for twelve hours.
What Works: The First Purge is a more polished film than the other entries in this series. This entry was directed by Gerard McMurray rather than series creator James DeMonaco and McMurray brings a visual sophistication to The Purge prequel. The action is more stylized and the camera is positioned in interesting ways that yield some impressive visuals. The First Purge is also a little more consistent in its tone. The other films have alternated between brilliance and stupidity; the action and political commentary were offset by clunky humor and illogical plotting. The First Purge is less stupid than the other films. Even though there are some silly moments they don’t feels as jarring in this prequel. The movie also creates an interesting web of characters. The film is led by Lex Scott Davis as a community organizer protesting the Purge and by Y’lan Noel as a local drug lord who comes to take responsibility for the community. The filmmakers make these people empathetic and engaging enough for the audience to care about their wellbeing and there are plot twists among the criminals that flesh out the themes of violence and economics that have defined this series. As with the other films, The First Purge gets in the audience’s face with the politics in a way that is audacious and challenging. Whatever its faults, the Purge series has its finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist and the filmmakers have taken popular images and ideas and mashed them up on the screen in a way that is relevant and provocative. In a media environment that is often sanitized and over processed, the Purge series is a uniquely political film.
What Doesn’t: The problem with the politics of the Purge series and especially The First Purge is that it is too literal and too simplistic. The premise has always implied a connection between literal violence, mostly against people of color, and economic violence wrought by the upper class. The First Purge makes all of that literal. The filmmaker’s address of racism is especially blatant as unidentified gunman in Ku Klux Klan robes prey upon the poor and black citizens of Staten Island. Spelling it out this way takes the mystery out of the concept and doesn’t require any effort from the audience. The movie also comes up short as a prequel. The whole point of a prequel is to expand and change our understanding of the existing movies. The First Purge doesn’t really do that. After fleshing out the origin of the Purge, the movie falls back into the same kinds of running and hiding scenarios we’ve seen in the other movies. That’s a missed opportunity. One of the most provocative ideas of The Purge series is the way it critiqued the myth of regeneration through violence. The series suggests that this myth is corrupting instead of redemptive and the Purge tradition debases the culture. As a prequel, The First Purge is primed to tackle this idea but the filmmakers skip through the process of corruption to get right to the violence. And therein lies another problem with this series and especially with The First Purge. There is a tension in the regard for violence. The filmmakers appear to believe that the idea of the Purge is bad and violence is to be feared. But the filmmakers also cannot resist stylized action scenes. The video game-like shootouts are at odds with the movie’s political message.
Bottom Line: The First Purge is both better and worse than the other entries in this series. It’s one of the best produced films of the franchise but the filmmakers fail to take full advantage of the premise and undermine some of their political points. Still, The Purge series continues to be a uniquely interesting political work.
Episode: #707 (July 15, 2018)