They say that practice makes perfect. While the fourth installment in the Purge franchise is far from perfection, there is something to it that is undeniably breaking through to speak to real world issues. Yes, The First Purge is more refined and closer to B-movie, survive the night status like some of the classic John Carpenter films. However, the real magic is in how much its’ premise feels a lot more tangible and believable in our present day political climate.
This film takes it back to the beginning when The Purge became The Purge. At this point, it’s called an experiment, created by Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei). Rather than being nationwide, its’ first at bat is localized to Staten Island. In an effort to get members of the community to participate, the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) offers $5,000 for wearing contacts that double as cameras with bonuses for committing violence. Potential candidates that range from psychotic and mentally ill to people trying to feed their family are analyzed by NFFA staff.
The formula here is no different. We’re introduced to the main characters early. Dmitri (Y’lan Noel) is the drug king of the borough. Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and Isaiah (Joivan Wade) are siblings who have each other’s back in a world without parents. Nya is an activist who believes the experiment is not good, while Isaiah is caught in the middle ground, seeing an illegal way to provide for him and his sister he starts dealing on the corner. Dolores (Mugga) is their hilarious neighbor and aunt figure in their lives.
In the midst of main character development, the NFFA is setting up cameras and surveillance around the island to broadcast to the world. Right before and once The Purge commences, so do the one-liners that strike a nerve. The Founding Father president states “We’re all Staten Islanders tonight”. Nya tells her old flame, Dmitri, “we have to make choices to heal or to hurt” after approaching him due to a setback Isaiah had on the street corner.
Since there is little ruckus outside of people robbing and looting when things start, Dr. Updale notes that in order for people to truly embrace The Purge “morality and religious dogma must be dropped”. It’s easy to gloss over that line, but it truly is the key to why The Purge works and why our current real life political climate is as it is. Even if you’re not religious, we all have a moral compass. Whether that compass has been pointed south by life, we all start out with the purity of knowing right from wrong. The statement is truly has Last Action Hero, off of the screen and into the real world impact.
With our morality in question, Arlo Sabien (Patch Darragh) the NFFA Chief of Staff, makes a call to spice things up. Simultaneously, director Gerard McMurray and writer James DeMonaco (who wrote all Purge films) do the same cinematically. Suddenly, white men wearing Ku Klux Klan hoods and throwback Nazi-like regalia show up on the island, forcing Dmitri and friends to fight back. There are particularly harrowing moments of racism and violence that come straight from our history’s headlines as klansmen shoot up a church with predominately black community members. One man is dragged through the street by his leg attached to a vehicle by chain. Tiki torches light the night. These images seem vaguely familiar. While the formula of the film calls for the main characters to get some payback on their oppressors, the joy that one feels for those kills is worth questioning. Sure, it’s just a movie, but why use Klan hoods as masks? That hadn’t been done before. It’s just a movie, but why are the clean cut white men in power positions to experiment in low-income neighborhoods that are comprised of people of color? It’s just a movie, but why does Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” close it out? The song is the rallying cry of this generation’s people of color. Again, see my opening statement, practice makes perfect and DeMonaco’s pen is getting closer to making powerful statements on the state of our union and lack their of.
Ultimately, the final act of the film is tense and suspenseful as Dmitri must “old school video game” his way up to the 14th floor of Nya’s project apartment building, taking out the bad guys along the way. McMurray’s direction is controlled and his frame is claustrophobic at times, allowing us to see what he wants us to see. He leads the audience to the end like a Carpenter throwback.
Some of the performances in this film are worth noting. Mainly, Y’lan Noel, who has an enormous presence on screen and natural charisma that forces you to root for him, even when he’s murdering people. Mugga provides plenty of laugh out loud moments in the film. In one scene she tells Nya that she left the church to look for her, then got the bubble guts and had to purge another way! Joivan Wade truly portrays a scared teenager trying to do what he thinks will help his family. Perhaps one character that will be a fan favorite is Skeletor, played by Rotimi Paul. He’s a giant psycho who wants to Purge from the opening scene. Rather than playing crazy, Paul truly makes Skeletor feel like the neighborhood fiend who finally gets to reek havoc on the world that looks down on him.
The First Purge certainly shows us how everything started. It’s the right length, and an authentic installment in the thesis of what all Purge films rest on in answering the question “what if all crime was legal for 12 hours?”. However, it low key shows us ourselves as well. That’s worth a deeper conversation after the lights come up.