Who knew the origin of the Purge still wouldn’t properly explain the Purge?
The Purge franchise — The Purge (2013), The Purge: Anarchy (2014), The Purge: Election Year (2016) — has never been all that interested in subtlety as writer/director James DeMonaco has again and again blended heavy commentaries on class and race with exploitation to deliver action/horror hybrids with varying success. The fourth film in the series, once again written by DeMonaco but directed this time by Gerard McMurray (Burning Sands, 2017), takes the prequel route in an attempt to show where it all started, but rather than simply offer answers alongside thrills it instead makes the subtext text and bores in the process. Weak action sequences, bright CG blood, and a confused idea about its antihero adds to the underwhelming experience that is The First Purge.
A third political party has emerged on the political landscape, and while the New Founding Fathers of America is little more than a thinly exaggerated Tea Party their power grows to the point of taking control of the country. In an attempt to combat rising crime rates and growing discord they move forward on a behavioral scientist’s plan to release the valve on American rage by creating a night where all crime is legal. The experiment is limited to Staten Island and its predominantly lower income citizenry, but when the time comes the locals surprise everyone by resisting the urge to purge. They even throw a party instead.
Convinced that America “needs” this to work, the NFFA dispatches ringers — mercenaries armed with bad attitudes and automatic weapons — to start the ol’ ultraviolence ball rolling. It works, and soon the community is awash in blood as locals, including a powerful drug dealer named Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), are fighting back against KKK bikers, Nazi fetishists, and at least one legit psychopath.
McMurray does a competent job directing with scenes presented cleanly and clearly, but DeMonaco’s script doesn’t give him much to work with. While racial intent is made abundantly clear the official argument for the Purge remains the same — giving people a one-night chance to commit crime without risk of punishment will make them content the rest of the year. Four films in, and that’s still a gibberish stance as the violent mind doesn’t work that way. The character of Skeletor (Rotimi Paul) confirms as much seeing as he’s already violently off his rocker even before the Purge begins.
So what is the point? While the official reasoning stands undefended, this time around the script leans in on the NFFA leaders simply wanting to eradicate non-whites and the poor. Less thinly veiled than magnified, the film features KKK members slaughtering black people (offscreen) who are holed up in a church, points out that the Purge is partially funded by the NRA, and even sees a protagonist dismiss a baddie as a “pussy-grabbing motherfucker.” Its proximity to real-life hatred and violence saps the action of both thrills and fun, but to be fair, there’s not much of either to begin with.
Set-pieces lack suspense or excitement as our heroes are surprised with jump scares in wide open spaces, act irresponsibly once they start fighting back, and spend more time talking about the injustice of it all than doing something about it. Gone are Anarchy and Election Year‘s smartly choreographed and executed action sequences and the showcases for how exaggerated and nutty this world is, and in their place are forgettable action beats and lessons. From the activist Nya (Lex Scott Davis) to the Purge’s architect (Marisa Tomei), the protagonists spend entirely too much time reminding each other (and viewers) just how wrong this whole Purge idea really is.
That thread feeds into Dmitri’s presence too as he shifts from violent drug dealer who encourages kids to work for him to violent defender of his customer base. Nya makes a brief comment as to the damage he’s been doing to the community himself, but it’s a theme that’s quickly buried as the night goes on. He becomes an antihero making choices in life “to heal or hurt” as he fights the Purge, but it never feels like a lasting character shift that will play into his career as a drug pusher.
For every cool element (glowing contacts that transmit video) in The First Purge there’s an equally underwhelming one (an entire action sequence set in obnoxious and thrill-killing emergency lighting). CG blood that’s too bright and too fake doesn’t help matters either.
To be fair to the film while the argument that it spends too much time preaching feels valid because who in their right mind would support any of the NFFA’s actions, the past few years in the real world has taught us that compassion and kindness are anathema to far too many of us. So maybe the lesson is needed… but maybe next time it can be paired with better action and more engaging characters?