We are now four movies deep into The Purge, and somehow, against all odds, against all conventional film wisdom, the brains behind the brand keep finding new things to do with an inherently ridiculous concept. What started as a clever riff on home invasion thrillers has morphed into a franchise which has one finger on the pulse of American society and another jammed firmly into our collective eye. It’s no coincidence that the ad campaign for The First Purge invokes the image of a bright red MAGA cap – this is a supremely pissed off film, created at a time when hatred, racism, and classism are all but government sponsored initiatives. A fourth entry to an established horror/thriller franchise should be a rote money-grab by design, but that’s not at all the case here. If anything, this grimy, angry punch to the teeth feels like a straight-up protest film, albeit behind a spooky mask.
As indicated by the title, The First Purge is a prequel, detailing the very first experimenting literal lawlessness. In response to collective societal discontent, a team of psychologists led by Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei) have decided that the best therapy comes in the form of extreme expression. To test this theory, the President has authorized the use of Staten Island for the very first Purge trials. A refresher: This means that for 12 hours, every law on the book is null and void, and any crimes committed within this window are instantly pardoned. Naturally, the residents of Staten Island have a mixed response. Most are against it, with a few of them leading vocal protests. Others aren’t resistant to it, but aren’t very inspired to partake. A small minority are extremely into it. In an effort to inspire participation, the governmental powers that be have offered an incentive. Everyone who remains on Staten Island (and agrees to have a tracker injected into their arm) will be paid five grand. Furthermore, if one is interested in partaking in any sort of crime, payment will be increased with each and every breach of law. This second part will be tracked via computerized contact lenses which allows those in charge to witness, monitor, and ultimately broadcast everyone’s misdeeds. These contact lenses also glow in the dark, giving all active Purgers a chilling mug.
Chief of Staff Argo Sabian has a lot riding on the success of the first Purge, and naturally pulls some strings to both increase and further incentivize the violence. I don’t want to say too much, but by the time government-sponsored goons are in Staten Island shaking things up, it becomes clear how disinterested The First Purge is in subtlety. What I’m saying is that said goons are all dressed like Nazis or KKK members, with one even wearing a rubber mask designed to look like a blackface minstrel performer. Using this sort of imagery is a gamble, but when one watches a horror movie and sees images not too different than what’s on the nightly news, it becomes clear how emboldened the real life Nazis and racists have become in our society. The First Purge does not make any statements about what the proper response is to this uprising of humanity’s worst inclinations, but rather uses its soapbox to remind us how easy it is to give way to such primitive drives if left unchecked.
The script, by James DeMonaco, who penned the entire series so far, keeps things at a community level, parsing out the many types who live in a lower socioeconomic bracket. There’s Nya (Lex Scott Davis), a young woman who hopes to one day move up in the world but, due to unspecified circumstances, is the sole caretaker for her little brother Isaiah (Jovian Wade). Isaiah is a lost young man who, in an effort to bring more money into his household, has begun working a corner for Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), the highest ranking man in the hood hierarchy. In anticipation of the Purge, Nya has decided to hole up in a secured Church with fellow community members who don’t wish to commit crime, but also don’t wish to vacate the island. Isaiah has plans of his own, while Dmitry has ordered all of his inferiors to stay home and protect the business. Unfortunately for him, other gang leaders see the Purge as an opportunity for upward mobility in the criminal life.
Throw in a frighteningly unhinged crackhead named Skeletor, and the bloodshed begins.
This is the first movie in the series which DeMonaco has not directed, instead passing the reigns to Gerard McMurray (producer – Fruitvale Station). McMurray keeps a lot of the imagery which brands this franchise (neon lights, bizarre masks, that chilling siren which indicates the beginning and end of the Purge), while adding an intensity that previous iterations lacked. Not that any of the films were inferior per se, but this fourth entry feels more like a horror movie than the rest, except for maybe the original (which was probably the weakest entry anyway). After a slow start, The First Purge really rips, and by the time our reluctant leading man was crushing the throat of a truly repugnant character, the theater was applauding the catharsis.
And while we’re on it, lets talk about Y’lan Noel. Much like all of the performances here, his is so much better than a film of this pedigree would seem to require. Much like Frank Grillo, who brought an 80’s action aesthetic to his entries in the series, Noel makes his mark as an actor with some serious action chops. His Dmitri is a deep, nuanced character who ultimately has to get his hands very very VERY dirty. It’s one of my favorite performances of the year. He is able to fit the bill as both the leader of a criminal enterprise as well as a man who only wants the best for his own. He’s not a bad man, but crime is the best way to rise above his circumstances, and he’s smart enough to apply himself to it without getting too lost in the game. Through The First Purge, Dmitri is the character with the biggest arc, and Noel crushes it at every turn. And when the wheels come off the ground and he’s tasked with carrying an action-packed third act, he’s absolutely electric. If I had my way, I’d say the next great action star is born.
The First Purge opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.