According to a recent Rasmussen poll, a third of all Americans and nearly half of all black Americans think a second civil war is likely within the next 5 years. Various political scientists, like Cambridge’s David Runciman, believe we are witnessing the death of democracy, with people increasingly reduced to “passive consumers of a spectacle, rather than citizens of an active democracy.” Economists fear Trump’s trade war, should it continue to escalate, will lead to a worldwide recession. White power nuts are running over liberal protestors at rallies. Liberals are tearing “Make America Great Again” hats straight off the heads of teenagers.
What a perfect time for The First Purge, the prequel to writer-director James DeMonaco’s once improbable-sounding franchise about a nationwide night of sanctioned lawlessness.
The real-life backstory goes like this, from Demonaco’s recent Horror Hound interview:
“Initial inspiration for the Purge conceit came from my wife afer we encountered a drunk driver who nearly killed us in Brooklyn. She commented after the confrontaton, ‘I wish we all had one free murder a year.’ I was shocked by her statement and it stayed with me. After which, I was living in France for almost a year and noticed that no one there owned a gun as opposed to many, many people I knew in America who did. I began exploring America’s relationship with guns and violence. Hurricane Katrina happened during this time, and I, like most, became appalled at the government’s response.”
Add all of that together and you get the story of an authoritarian U.S. government using a night of legalized crime to pacify the masses and thin the herd.
Not that the commentary was quite that heavy-handed at first. The first Purge is a glorified home invasion horror story focused on a rich, white family’s fight to survive the night. The second and third films, both written and directed by DeMonaco, upped the social commentary considerably by expanding outward to focus on a cop (Frank Grillo) who lost his son to The Purge and a female politician (Elizabeth Mitchell) campaigning to end the madness once and for all.
We’ve only gotten this far because DeMonaco’s original Purge script found its way to Jason Blum, who had just signed his famous “make whatever you want just as long as it costs less than $5m” deal with Universal. He gave DeMonaco $3m to go make The Purge. Their reward? A franchise, now entering its fourth installment, which has grossed over $300m worldwide against a combined budget just south of $25m. Beyond that, it has become a beloved part of Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights theme park attraction. There’s even a 10-episode Purge TV series set to air on USA in September.
As Horrorhound put it, the films function as “cautionary tale for how a nation can lose its soul.” But we’ve never actually known how exactly The Purge came about, other than through the actions of a new political party (the New Founding Fathers of America, NFFA for short) which rises to power by selling lies and white nationalism.
The First Purge is supposed to finally give us that answer, but it only kind of does. By the start of the film, The Purge concept has already been devised as an experiment by a social psychologist (Marisa Tomei, with Maria Bello hair, for some reason), but what inspired her thinking or how exactly the NFFA sold the concept to the public/Congress is anyone’s guess. We just know it’s controversial and remarkably predatory, soon to be pilot tested on Staten Island where the population is predominantly black and brown-skinned and economically disadvantaged.
Those with any real money have chosen to spend the night elsewhere; those without money – like community organizer Nya (Lex Scott Davis), her brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade), and their friends Dolores (Mugga), Luisa (Lauren Velez), and Selina (Kristen Solis) – simply shelter in place. The government has promised to pay five thousand dollars to anyone who stays, should they survive the night, of course. If they go out and actually kill, they’ll get paid even more.
What eventually transpires is essentially the second civil war so many are afraid of, just exclusively fought between white nationalists and people of color. See, the experiment doesn’t work. Sure, a couple of murders transpire and a bunch of stores get robbed, but not enough to justify the NFFA’s larger plan to expand The Purge nationwide as a way to boost gun sales and rid the world of those lower classes who are overly dependent on costly social safety nets. So, they send in their own entirely Caucasian band of mercenaries to annihilate the Staten Island residents, most of whom are simply and quite peacefully locked away in their apartments.
Luckily, Staten Island has its own hero: Dmitri (Y’Lan Noel), Nya’s python-armed ex with Black Panther-like combat skills and a John McClane wifebeater. He’s the area’s drug kingpin, but he wants to be better and will damn well protect his own. As the NFFA’s thugs hunt down the residents of Nya’s apartment building, Dmitri mounts a one-man resistance, resulting in a pleasing combination of Attack the Block and The Raid.
And that’s generally what these Purge movies do: they hit you over the head with sledgehammer social commentary in the first half, and then deliver non-stop, usually mindless thrills in the back half. The problem is with each new sequel the franchise seem less and less concerned with traditional horror, gravitating instead to action movie tropes. This creates a bit of a disconnect in The First Purge, which clearly has higher ideals in mind but has to make obligatory detours into fights with crazy randos wearing spooky masks – masks that will surely be added to the Universal theme park.
But new-to-the-franchise director Gerard McMurray makes good use of his predominantly black and Latino cast, and by the end, if the film works for you-you’re sure as heck rooting for Dmitri to mow the bastards down. What does that say about us or the gun culture DeMonaco once set out to chastise?
THE BOTTOM LINE
You might reject the core concept, which does at least sound vaguely more plausible than it did 5 years ago. You might roll your eyes at the sledgehammer commentary. But there’s a good time to be had from watching Y’Lan Noel’s arrival as a new action star. Sign him up, Marvel.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- A first?: There is a mid-credits scene, but it’s just a commercial for The Purge TV series. Has any other film ever done that before?
- First Purge uses race to speak to Trump’s America much in the same Wes Craven once did to subvert Reagan-era values in People Under the Stairs. Craven, not surprisingly, did it better.
- Nya fights an actual pussygrabber. Some of the mercenaries are Russian. Like I said, nothing about Purge is ever subtle.
- Nice touch: The purgers all wear light-up contacts which record everything they do. McMurray wisely turns one group of red-eyed purgers into practical demons hunting from the shadows.