After Eli Roth’s Death Wish, I didn’t think 2018 could deliver less subtle cinematic commentary – enter Gerard McMurray’s The First Purge. Remember those mock MAGA hat posters and how on-the-nose they were? Consider said “satire” understated in comparison to the shoot-em-up cleansing illustrated in-full.
Civilians are fed up. They – we – have every right to be. If you weren’t sure about previous Purge film intentions (SOMEHOW), let there be no mistake. McMurray is coming for Donald Trump, he’s coming for alt-right Nazis and he’s coming for the America we’ve become numbingly accustomed to. I know this because it’s spelled out in every scene with neon subtitles, blatant tragedies and a billion different references that tie *directly* to real life. Unfiltered anger erupts without warning, but it takes precedence over storytelling, continuity and other filmmaking aspects. Think of it as ariticism by way of the gun.
After years of watching “The Purge” evolve, James DeMonaco’s latest script brings us back to the beginning. New Founding Fathers of America have been voted into office, and their first act is to subject Staten Island to something called “The Experiment.” Or – as not-so-cheekily name-dropped in the first seconds of dialogue – what some begin to call a “purge.”
Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei) works with NFFA Chief of Staff Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh) to unleash her pet project, which might solve nationwide overpopulation problems if expansion is granted. It *has* to work. This means nothing but trouble for those low-income inhabitants who are monetarily incentivized to stay locked on Staten Island. Activist Nya (Lex Scott Davis), drug kingpin Dmitri (Y’lan Noel) – “The Purge” may be rigged, but these Islanders aren’t going down without a fight against NFFA interference.
As if these *clearly stated* intentions by caucasian NFFA devils in snappy suits weren’t pointed enough, McMurray favors impossible-to-mistake imagery and spoken accompaniments. “Gangs” are introduced, denoted by full-hooded Klu Klux Klan mercenaries or a nightstick-swinging police motorcycle troop shown beating an African American to death in a baseball stadium. When Nya gets groped by a sewer pervert, she screams back a line about the no-good “pussy grabber.”
You’ll get white separatists shooting up a church, Luna Lauren Velez crying over the thought of her young Latino companion’s future in America, masks mimicking blackface, a high-ranking mercenary officer dressed head-to-toe in leather Nazi SS gear – every detail is political. Every action a depiction of glorious and violent retribution. Every “metaphorical” middle finger more Django Unchained and less Get Out. This is a message spelled in gasoline meant for the White House lawn – which, in part, highlights the film’s biggest hangup.
The Purge started this franchise on its scariest note and has worked towards Escape From New York ever since, with The First Purge going full action hero. No Frank Grillo necessary. Dmitri bunkers down to ride out the night atop his product stash, surrounded by security, but soon finds himself gunning down “purgers” left and right. Aryan soldiers with tactical assault equipment, training and objective intent.
McMurray is fighting back via military-grade squadron eliminations, never to feign conspiracy suspense. Catharsis via gruesome violence conflicts the exact lessons that The First Purge is trying to teach. Be prepared for the most *gruesome* purgeification yet, only because murder plays as gratuitous reparations and nothing more. Race cards aren’t just dropped, they define the sides. “Fight the power” has never been so literal.
Most frustratingly, The First Purge feels cobbled together around slow-mo shots of Dmitri’s gang sauntering into battle with little attention paid to world-sustaining. Green screen crowds background poorly framed newscaster interview shots and effects look sloppy. I get it, what dystopian slaughterhouse is complete without a flaming civilian – but don’t leave the safety goop visible, like a magician revealing their trick. Crisp cinematography flips to graininess without hesitation when close-ups squish inward, and *of course* lensing is clearest when distortion could have hidden obvious stuntman appearances. For these reasons alone, it’s hard to stay invested in anything but Dmitri’s warpath. Continuity included, since characters like Melonie Diaz’s Juani are introduced and *never heard from again.* Frustration explodes with a short attention span, and franchise growth takes a massive hit.
There are – from a pure stance of entertainment – moments where Y’lan Noel flashes the 80s exploitation superstar he could have been. Bulging muscles, seething expressions of vengeance, an almost robotic dedication to headshotting nationalists in khakis and alabaster polos. Dmitri’s redemptive arc from pimpin’ underground superstar to savior of the projects is representative of the whole “no other way to succeed” argument. From street justice to NFFA payback, you’re here for relative newcomer Y’lan Noel. He’s easy to root for, even if a thirst for bloodshed amplifies some messy politics.
Rotimi Paul as “The Purge’s” inaugural killer “Skeletor” embraces a criminal insanity that his needle-taped Wolverine hand and facial modifications only spotlight. Skeletor is patient zero, and Paul disappears into a maniac who cannot differentiate between bloodlust and reality. Prime horror content? Well, unfortunately, the film’s terror functions on a one-note level. McMurray’s dread-soaked setups are amateurishly expected. Whenever a hidden purger (re: Skeletor) is about to pounce, the camera pulls in tight on a character’s face so no other angles are shown. Horror 101 kind of stuff, blackened by a night where legal crime provides a soundtrack of gunshots and looting (when booty-shakin’ “Purge Parties” wind down).
Skeletor’s entrances provide fake-out horror based on the above expectancies, which spells doom for remaining deviants because he’s the only characterized “Purge” personality given even half a presence. The two old ladies who rig stuffed animals with detonating cell phones? Don’t even get me started. No, they’re not characterized by a quick cutscene about their suggested desire to kill. It’s all riot-destruction flare and no reason. Even the recording device contact lenses that illuminate participant’s eyes are a demonic halo of neon, because how did technology somehow get *better* even though this prequel goes back in time?
To me, The First Purge is an ugly excuse for spilled guts in the name of social injustice. James DeMonaco’s story has devolved to a point of ignored suggestion, all supercharged anti-establishment demonstration. With movies like Sorry To Bother You and Blindspotting taking similar but far more poignant stances this very summer, The First Purge feels like a step in the wrong direction. A “purge” itself of monstrous ideals, oblivious to its own warnings. One that wastes a trumpeting blast of resisting vitriol through all the wrong methods. The best kind of art imitates life and there are obvious issues to tackle in current times – but without nuance, you’re just creating an echo chamber of hatred. It’s Carpenter without the poised commentary. A message in a bottle rigged with explosives. Just a whole lot of spewed rage from *both* sides…and a poop “bowel purge” joke for good measure, of course.
The First Purge doubles-down on bloody opposition against true-to-life societal fears, but abandons the subtlety needed to prevent Gerard McMurray’s prequel from becoming anything more than hateful retribution.