Movie Review: ‘The First Purge’ is a confusing movie for a confusing time
Director: Gerard McMurray
Writers: James DeMonaco
Stars: Y’lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis, Joivan Wade
Synopsis: After the rise of a third political party, the New Founding Fathers of America, an experiment is conducted, no laws for 12 hours on Staten Island. No one must stay during the experiment yet there is $5,000 for anyone who does.
We live in a time of confusion and turmoil. How often have we remarked to each another that turning on the news or scrolling through our social media feeds is an exercise in anguish? What we see and hear in the world around us is difficult to rationalize. It breeds anger, and we don’t often know what to do with all that pent-up aggression. At least, this is the progression that The First Purge feeds us – a society built upon violence.
This is the first film of this series that I’ve seen, though I have been aware of these films for some time. The plot here is basically the same as the others – for one day, crime is legal in an attempt to allow citizens to release their pent-up anger. The difference here is that the film showcases an early trial of this “experiment.” Here, The Purge is isolated to Staten Island before the other films show The Purge on a national scale. This is how it all started.
We mainly follow the same group of people throughout the entire film. Nya (Lex Scott Davis) is a churchgoing activist who lives with her brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade) in a rundown apartment complex. They are barely making ends meet – a frustrating way to live. It pushes Isaiah to seek out the drug scene, which is run by the local kingpin, Dmitri (Y’lan Noel). Dmitri also happens to be Nya’s former lover. In the film’s very first shot, we also meet Skeletor (Rotimi Paul), the type of convict you would probably worry about most if something like The Purge were to actually happen. He is obviously disturbed, and he is looking for a way to release the tension he feels inside. Finally, you have the government team overseeing The Purge. Patch Darragh plays a wooden but calculating chief of staff named Arlo Sabian. He is joined by Marisa Tomei, who plays a small role as the behavioral scientist who conceives the plan for The Purge. It may be this film’s most egregious error that her considerable talents are mostly wasted.
Just by looking at the film’s marketing materials, you may think that this is a horror film. I won’t deny that there are a few jump scares, and the violence is certainly frightening at times. But this is a political film above all else. First, you have the obvious depiction of politics in the government agency overseeing The Purge. There are clear elements of national conspiracy and governmental overreach that may or may not have parallels in our current state of affairs, depending on who you ask. Then you have the overt references to our current president, such as when Nya is pulled down by a masked man reaching up from a sewer grate. His mask has a toy taped to it that emits baby sounds. When he grabs her, Nya fights him off yelling behind her, “Get your hands off me you p***y-grabbing m*********er!” This film is certainly not subtle.
I’ve started to notice more and more people on social media bemoaning the supposed encroachment of politics into the art of film. But doesn’t it seem like there’s a place for art to engage with politics on some level? We can’t completely separate ourselves from the political sphere. I think there should be art that has something to say in that regard. Not every piece of art should deal with politics, sure, but I think we’re kidding ourselves if we expect to totally divest ourselves from engaging with it.
Maybe the best thing The First Purge has going for it is the way it wrestles with the Orwellian doublespeak of its title. We first believe that the motivation for The Purge is the government’s intention to let the citizens of Staten Island release their pent-up anger. However, as the film continues, we realize that there are ulterior motives at play. There is a conspiratorial tone here, but I felt that the film did a good job of not crossing the line into ludicrous melodrama. The irony of The Purge is left simmering just beneath the surface for the audience to uncover on its own.
It’s common to hear people say that violence is not the answer to the world’s problems. This film entertains the notion of whether or not violence could be the answer if we allowed it to have its day. While I never found the film’s violence to be gratuitous, it certainly earns its “R” rating. It is clear that the film has something to say about violence, not only the made-up kind birthed by the film’s plot, but the everyday kind that it, unfortunately, presents with keen transparency. There are real people like Dmitri, and I think the film wants us to consider that.
While I acknowledge that this is at least a film with ambition and something important to say, it was the character of Dmitri that gave me fits. The film doesn’t really seem to know what to do with him. At times, it makes the case that Dmitri is no different than the invading government mercenaries. But, by the end, he is held up as the savior of the community. At times, it seems his motivation is love for Nya, but then he is also consumed with revenge. Nya’s character even has an intriguing plot surrounding the place of activism in such a violent society, yet even she must engage in violence by the end. By the end of the film, I knew there was something important the film was trying to say, but I never felt that it really grasped it. Whatever it was still dangled in front of me as the film’s closing shots came.
In those final shots, the camera pans up and we see an American flag set against a cloudy sky. I couldn’t help but hear the lyrics “This is America, Don’t catch you slippin’ now” from Childish Gambino in my head. Violence is America, at least that’s what the film would have you believe. You can try to run from it, but it spills into our very streets and even our homes.
But the fact that The First Purge doesn’t fully commit to this investigation of the place violence has in our culture kept me from feeling fully invested myself. As it stands, I was never really sure what The First Purge was trying to say because I don’t think it was ever quite sure of itself.
It is a confused movie for a confusing time.