Director: Gerard McMurray
Screenplay: James DeMonaco
Starring: Y'Lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis, Joivan Wade, Mugga, Lauren Velez, Marisa Tomei
Runtime: 97 Minutes
The Purge series is in the remarkably rare position for a mainstream horror franchise, that being that it’s a series that has been getting progressively better as it’s gone on. The original film arrived on the scene with an incredibly fertile starting premise that it squandered pathetically on a tired home invasion narrative where the context of its occurrence only meant that there was a new reason why they couldn’t just call the cops.
It was a devastatingly senseless waste of an opportunity to make the most of such a unique and original concept, that being an annual 12-hour window of legalised crime watched over by the omnipresent fascist dictatorship of the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) in a dystopian future United States. But as the series has developed it has chartered further into the worldbuilding of its universe, filling out the details and fleshing out the background of why something so controversial might exist.
Having written itself into a bit of a narrative former with the last film, The First Purge serves as a prequel to explain the beginnings of ‘The Purge’ as a social experiment that went nationwide, and finally brings the social underpinnings of its volatile premise to boiling point and its most logical conclusion. Reinforcing not only the status of the ‘The Purge’ as a means of thinning out the poorer classes through violent means for economic gain, but also a means of deeply uncomfortable racial cleansing as the experiment begins in the predominantly black and Latino borough of Staten Island, New York.
The story follows drug kingpin Dmitri (Y'lan Noel), his former partner Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and her younger brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade) who are all trapped on the island as the experiment is underway. While watching from monitors are the NFFA and The Architect played by Marisa Tomei, who sees this opportunity for a social experiment disappears once she realises the full intentions of who she has been working for all along.
As if the political metaphors regarding the state sanctioning of race on race violence wasn’t clear enough, the film explores its premise once again through an ensemble of different characters who are thrown together in an effort to survive the night while the NFFA send in an assortment of heavily armed militia, klansmen and mercenaries to stir up the conflict in a covert exercise to make the experiment work as intended while the eyes of the world and media are watching.
This might be the most overtly pointed stab at antiestablishmentarianism smuggled into movie theatres under the guise of a genre movie in years, but since the series is no longer even trying to hide its pointed references to real-life politics – and the fact that reality itself is edging so frighteningly close to some of the satirical parallels it draws – it really comes across as a bonus for the film and filmmakers.
Series helmer James DeMonaco taken on writing duties alone this time and hands the directorial reigns over to newcomer Gerard McMurray, who takes this further from its slasher movie origins into and closer to a violent action B-movie as with the previous two films. He’s got a great eye for scene geography and making sense of the street chaos at points, and a final act standoff in a highrise tower really delivers in its tactile and enclosed intensity. It’s only a minor pity that it ends up all too often drawing its eye back to the carnage and bloodshed that doesn’t hold up as engagingly as it should do.
But the breakouts are the cast and the characters. Y'lan Noel does amazing work at making his character and his background believable and getting to route for him by the end, delivering some impressive action combat work in the latter half in one or two breathless tableaus that are good enough to put memories of even the terrific Frank Grillo of previous movies out of mind.
Lex Scott Davis is a great emotional anchor as the activist who has to find a sudden balance struck between her passivist standing and the violent reaction surrounding her, and Joivan Wade prooves more of his dramatic work following his impressive television work. There are numerous others who pull in good work but they all do well as figures of agency when put against the backdrops of church massacres and street violence that will be all too close for home for many viewers.
The downsides really come in the fact that as it is acting as a prequel, much of the climax feels predetermined beyond the fates of the characters at the centre of it, and the shocking revels of what ‘The Purge’ has really been about this whole time is meant to dawn on the characters and audience as a twist – even though we already understand the reasons behind it from the last two films pulling the same stunt. It’s also odd to wish that maybe it was a little more pointed than it is with its lipservice to certain phrases and images, that it might be able to channel back into the character work a little better.
The First Purge feels like the call to arms that the series has been building too since the first sequel at least, and carries so much agency, fury and plain rendering of it's ideological underpinnings and satire that feels more than a little essential to its prevalence as pop culture artefact. If only it allowed itself further restraint in its more splatter friendly moments.