Just so we’re clear, The Purge has a stupid premise.
The idea that the American government would make all crime legal for 12 hours, thus turning normal people into Jason Voorhees-esque slashers and saving the economy, makes sense only in a college dorm room covered with “Why So Serious?” posters.
But by the time Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” plays over the closing credits, director Gerard McMurray, taking over for series creator James DeMonaco, transforms The First Purge into something urgent, beguiling, and (I can’t believe I’m saying this) realistic.
A simple plot synopsis suggests nothing different than the previous three Purge films (including 2014’s The Purge: Anarchy and 2016’s The Purge: Election Year). Set during the first administration of the uber-conservative New Founding Fathers Party (NFFP), The First Purge traces the events of a twelve-hour period in which nothing is illegal on Staten Island.
In each of the other Purge films, decriminalization immediately inspires everyday Americans to slaughter their neighbors, but most of the characters here look at the so-called “Staten Island Experiment” with skepticism. Community organizer Nya (Lex Scott Davis) wants to keep her neighborhood safe through non-violence, while her mobster ex-boyfriend Dimitri (Y’lan Noel) urges his gang to avoid unnecessary entanglements and to protect his business. In fact, the only Staten Islanders excited about the experiment are Dimitri’s gangland rivals, the murderous Skeletor (played with cartoonish glee by Rotmi Paul), and Nya’s little brother Isaiah (an excellent Jovian Wade), who sees the Purge as an opportunity to make money or a reputation, both denied to him by America’s racist legal system.
In a move both asthetically clunky and thematically compelling, The First Purge turns attention to NFFP members and the Purge architect Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei), who have been offering cash rewards to destitute Staten Island residents who “actively” participate in the Purge and interviewing them about their anger at social inequality to create a narrative about the violent nature of the lower classes. When even that proves too little to incite violence, the NFFP busses in masked white supremacists and militants to destroy the people who won’t destroy themselves.
Products of the Obama administration, the previous Purge movies seemed like exaggeration, their invocations of conservative talking points too much a stretch for a white liberal like me. But in 2018, even the most tangental reference — like when Nya shouts “fucking pussy grabber” at a would-be rapist — feels earned. Marauders walking down the inner city wearing dapper Nazi suits or KKK paraphinalia or police SWAT gear blend in with news reports from Charlottesville or America’s border.
Which isn’t to say that the movie is artful or even clever. The few gestures toward established Purge iconography, particularly the slow-motion shots of people in “scary” masks”, are as obnoxious as ever, and the scenes of Dr. Updale debating political philosophy with NFFP members feel as airless as anything in a faith-based film. But the film exhilarates when it fully embraces its B-movie roots, especially when Dimitri becomes a Punisher-type vigilante leading a resistance against white supremacists invading his island.
Like any good exploitation film, The First Purge has a wobbly moral compass. It seems to endorse Nya when she calls out Dimitri for hurting the neighborhood with his criminal activities. But when the American government goes to war against people of color, it’s hard not to cheer for the violent reckoning he brings.
Blunt and troubling, there’s no denying that The First Purge offers a cathartic shock in light of current events.