06th Jul2018

‘The First Purge’ Review #2

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Y’lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis, Joivan Wade, Marisa Tomei, Patch Darragh, Luna Lauren Velez, Kristen Solis, Rotimi Paul | Written by James DeMonaco | Directed by Gerard McMurray

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With The Purge franchise, creator James DeMonaco has done the near impossible: develop and expand an implausible, high-concept idea into an engaging socio-political saga. Better still, he’s managed it without too much repetition. 2013’s The Purge was a simple home invasion horror; 2014’s Anarchy was a survival action movie with zombie movie tropes; and 2016’s Election Year was a broad allegory for the toxic state of American democracy in the run-up to the real-world presidential showdown. Now we are in the era of Trump, and DeMonaco – writer only this time, leaving directing duties to Burning Sands’ Gerard McMurray – has gone back to the creation of the Purge itself.

The concept of the Purge – for one night each year, all crime in the US is legal – is a classic case of an idea being nonsensical in the real world, but brilliant in the context of cinema. By sanctioning violence and murder, anyone wilfully indulging in the Purge is fair game – a setup which smartly sidesteps the conventional good versus evil dichotomy. The films don’t need to spend time justifying the moral credentials of its protagonists and antagonists: people are either up for purging or they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The series’ ideas and delivery are increasingly steeped in ‘80s B-movie cinema. Like Anarchy, Walter Hill’s atmospheric The Warriors (technically ‘70s) involved an outmatched and outnumbered group inching their way across a dangerous, neon-glow city in a single night, with the threat of violence always in the air. And Election Year is virtually a remake of John Carpenter’s classic Escape from New York, which involved Kurt Russell’s Snake Plisskin rescuing the POTUS from a Manhattan overrun by murderous gangs. In The First Purge, it’s a different New York island again.

The action is always brisk and brutal (and edited with clarity), and DeMonaco is not afraid to kill off his heroes. The change in character focus with each film ups the stakes further (a typical horror conceit, where the protagonists change but the evil remains constant). There are no superheroes; DeMonaco’s films deny us the satisfaction of seeing a broken world corrected on our behalf. It’s not about law enforcement deserting the ordinary people, it’s about ordinary people being systematically disenfranchised, and learning to work together in order to fight back.

For all the nihilism of its world, what is constantly admirable about the Purge movies is their lack of cruelty. The situations are desperate and the violence is often shocking, but the focus is always on decency and humanity amidst the horror. This was underlined in the transition from Anarchy to Election Year, where Frank Grillo’s Leo goes from reluctant hero in the former to proud knight in the next. It may not be sophisticated but it is bold, the characters are clearly defined, and the message – that even at the vilest extremes of human nature, goodness can prevail – is laudable and loud. A circus mirror held up to reality, The Purge series is perhaps the consummate fable of our time.

With all of this in mind, we should not write off the franchise, even though The First Purge is the weakest instalment so far. As its title suggests, it brings us back to the inception of the Purge, devised by an eminent psychologist nicknamed “The Architect” (Marisa Tomei), and bankrolled by The New Founding Fathers of America, who are an extreme alternative to Republicans and Democrats.

The Purge, first time around, is a social experiment limited to Staten Island (naturally – DeMonaco’s debut film was Staten Island, and it starred The Purge’s Ethan Hawke). Residents are offered the chance of participation in return for money. The poverty of the locals means a majority take up the offer, and it seems like the deal of a lifetime when it turns into a giant street party. The NFFA didn’t bank on this. As the other films have made clear, the NFFA’s nefarious intention was always to make the impoverished minorities eat themselves alive. Desperate measures are needed, and soon the island is a bloodbath.

Nya (Lex Scott Davis) is leading a church group (“Pray don’t purge”). When her younger brother, Isaiah (Jovian Wade), chooses to stay on the island to get revenge on crack-fiend “Skeletor” (Rotimi Paul), she is drawn onto the mean streets to save him. Meanwhile, Nya’s ex Dmitri (Y’Lan Noel) is trying to protect his illicit drugs business – a cause that will ultimately bring him into a faceoff with the NFFA army.

Nakedly political once more (an opening news report announces riots in Charlotte), with its cast of black protagonists versus white antagonists, The First Purge is an entirely unveiled metaphor for the Black Lives Matter movement. It also includes some amusingly on-the-nose jabs at Donald Trump – at one point, after being groped, Nya cries, “You pussy-grabbing motherf-!”

Problem is, in digging into practicalities and philosophies of the Purge, the film draws further attention to the very implausibility of it. This preposterousness was never a threat in the previous three films because it was largely a backdrop to muscular genre storytelling. However, for such a lean film, a lot of time in the first act is spent in offices and in front of the media, justifying the Purge’s existence. With the lack of a convincing argument, it’s not so much thought-provoking as time-wasting. The Architect is an exposition machine, but she’s not a very convincing character. A clearly conscientious woman, the idea that she would concoct and oversee this experiment, and be willing to accept a few murders here and there, just to prove a dubious social point, seems fanciful at best.

Perhaps more implausible still is the relationship between Nya and Dmitri. Specifically, the idea that the highly principled and pacifist Nya would continue to be drawn to a violent drug-dealer who regularly uses murder to protect his business interests, and in her own words creates an everyday Purge by flooding the streets with drugs. Dmitri’s emergence as a hero seems predicated on his ability to do violence; it just so happens that it’s now directed against a appropriately fascistic enemy. But is he not simply protecting his business interests? There’s never a suggestion that he’s retreating from his shameful kingship – there’s no real ambiguity in his character – and this makes it hard to accept him as a saviour.

It’s a pity that the heart of the film is missing, because once again DeMonaco’s eye for broad metaphor is intact. I love how the NFFA measure homicidal participation in terms of “data”. And as they try to change the mood of the Staten Island Purge, it is clear that DeMonaco is considering the influence of social media in manipulating and by extension defining social norms and social fears, under the guise of a fabricated “human nature”.

The First Purge is a so-so entry in the franchise. The ideas are as good as ever, but between its hail of exposition and digitised blood, it neglects the intricacy of characterisation that has fleshed out the series up to this point. I still look forward to the next episode, but I wonder if it might do well to return to its simple genre pleasures, give us a little more of the little people, and return to the model of implicit, rather than explicit, world-building and politicking.

The First Purge is out in cinemas now.

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