Man, and you thought the last Purge movie was blunt. Released in the summer of 2016 to a nation only beginning to grasp how utterly doomed it was, The Purge: Election Year, the third entry in the series, gave us the spectacle of a bunch of pasty, bloodthirsty male politicians desperately trying to cling to power by trying to destroy a progressive female presidential candidate. Now, The First Purge — a prequel though it may be — takes things even further. It gives us armed gangs of psychos dressed in Klan robes and Nazi overcoats and cop uniforms and (of course) white supremacist khakis, all descending on poor neighborhoods hoping to kill as many black and Hispanic people as they can. Oh, and some of these bad guys speak Russian, too.
Ever since The Purge premiered in 2013, with its unusually rich and prescient concept of a future-state America where all crime is legal for an annual 12-hour period, series writer-director James DeMonaco (who scripted The First Purge but handed off directing duties this time to Gerard McMurray) has been expanding and tweaking the idea. The original Purge (dammit, we can’t say “the first Purge” anymore) was essentially a home invasion film with a Twilight Zone-style twist. 2014’s The Purge: Anarchy, still the best of the lot, descended into the streets to show us what Purge Night really looked like. In so doing, it gave us a compellingly sleazy look at how the capacity for violence infects us all, while also offering up a toxic tasting menu of American psychoses: class war, racism, sexual deviancy, gun worship, religious nuttery. At each step, like any good grindhouse showman, DeMonaco seemed to modify the idea a little bit, making it fit the issues of the day.
So it makes sense that The First Purge is the least subtle one yet, and the one most focused on race. (It’s also the only entry in the series where the heroes are entirely people of color.) As a result, there’s an urgency and an anger this time around that helps paper over some of the story’s messiness, as well as some of the awkward drama of trying to explain where this whole crazy Purge idea actually came from. The new film delivers a jolt of energy to this franchise — much needed after the tired and awkward The Purge: Election Year, which at the time felt like the idea had run its course.
This time, we jump back a few years in the chronology to see the original Purge Night, presented as a social experiment confined solely to Staten Island, New York. The eyes of the entire nation are watching to see if the program’s promise of “societal catharsis,” as articulated by sociologist Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei), will have the desired effects of renewing the American ideal and mollifying unrest. The people of Staten Island are skeptical, but they’re also being offered $5,000 each to remain in the borough during “the experiment,” and even more money if they participate in the night’s activities. If they do participate, they get to wear a special pair of contact lenses that will record their actions; the contacts glow in the dark, of course, making everybody look scary as shit.
Among our heroes, Nya (Lex Scott Davis) is an activist protesting this insane experiment, while her ex-boyfriend Dmitri (Y’lan Noel) is a local drug dealer who also hates the idea but is determined to stick it through with his cronies, because moving his supply out of Staten Island would be too risky.
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The Purge movies have always reveled in a kind of philosophical double standard, wherein they criticize Americans’ bloodlust while gloriously indulging in it. (Is there a more violent major studio franchise right now?) The First Purge actually pulls back somewhat on that sense of bloodthirsty anticipation. The violence here feels more tragic than ever, and it’s also some time coming; when Purge Night does start, the killing doesn’t begin immediately. Instead, Staten Islanders gather to dance and grind and drink to their heart’s content at hedonistic block parties. After all, it’s not just murder that’s suddenly legal. The slaughter seems like it’s about to start when one particular wild-eyed addict named Skeletor (Rotimi Paul) starts slicing and dicing people indiscriminately, and another dealer trying to take over Dmitri’s business tries to have him killed.
But that, too, isn’t enough to get things rolling properly. (Among other things, The First Purge repeatedly drives home the point that white people are way too convinced that black people are just looking for excuses to start killing folks.) Hoping to kick-start some more bloodletting, the recently elected New Founding Fathers Party — the real villains of the night, who have organized the Purge experiment — blast videos of the first killings on TV and across social media. Even that doesn’t work. So soon enough, mysterious gangs of masked men, heavily armed and alarmingly well-organized, start rolling into black and brown neighborhoods and systematically gun down people by the truckload. A credulous TV reporter asks if the masks are a sign of shame or of celebration and jubilee. Of course, anyone who saw The Purge: Anarchy knows what the masks are hiding, and that the theme of Purge Night is not ground-level societal catharsis but top-down population control.
Yes, it’s a sick idea, but with each passing year, we seem to inch ever closer to feeling like we might one day have one of these things for real. Every time some racist shithead is allowed to present the idea of blowing up the entire American system of government as some kind of plausible solution for his grievances — be it social, cultural or economic — or a politician is allowed to trample laws and norms because “people are angry,” you realize how far we’ve gone down the path of allowing the notion that humanity and society are an acceptable trade-off for individuated rage and, even worse, convenience.
Anyway, we’re informed during the closing credits of The First Purge that The Purge will soon be a TV show airing on the USA Network. We may be tempted to ask: Isn’t it already?