The PURGE films hold a weird fascination for me. In nearly every way they feel like quick junk entertainment. Loud, bloody, and run on rails, they seem largely unconcerned with characterization or other things I might usually fixate on. And yet — with the possible exception of the first installment — they offer such a cracked mirror accurate take on America’s fears, they feel impossible to ignore. THE FIRST PURGE takes us back to the beginning — 2014 in the franchise’s timeline — and clearly is invested in capturing that same relevance.

As TVs blare we are bombarded by stories and images. Shocking election results. White supremacists on the march. Random acts of senseless vandalism. One cannot but think that, perhaps, the PURGE people went a bit TOO obvious this time. At a point, anti-Purge protestor Nya (Lex Scott Davis) escapes a handsy underground Purger. The retort she leaves him with? A comment that directly references our current Commander-in-Chief taped conversation with Billy Bush. I groaned but the audience seemed to like it, so what do I know?

So does the FIRST PURGE manage to find enough separation to avoid hagiography? Let’s take a look, shall we?

THE FIRST PURGE: Masked Fella
A kindly chap welcomes you to Purge Night in THE FIRST PURGE. (Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

The Idea Behind THE FIRST PURGE

Before it was a nationwide event, the Purge had to be pilot studied. The “lucky” experimental group? Staten Island, of course. While Dr. Updale (Marissa Tomei) apparently found a very forgiving Independent Review Board (IRB) to get this thing approved, she still plans to play it straight. She is sure it is the cure for what ails America.

The New Founding Fathers — the third party that rules over the previous three PURGE installments but has just taken control in THE FIRST PURGE — feel differently, however. They see this not as an experiment but a must-work and not because they care about the soul of the nation either.

More like: they really want to authorize person-on-person violence. Island residents seem happy to take the NFFA’s cash but seem less than motivated to harm one another. Despite promises of more money the worse laws you break, most stick to small stuff. Block parties without a permit, lewd conduct on the hood of a car, and vandalizing an ATM for cash. That sort of thing.

There are exceptions, of course. Nya refuses to even take the money despite the fact that she intends to remain on the island. Her younger brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade) secretly cashes in with revenge on his mind. Local drug addict/facial modifier/boogeyman “Skeletor” (Rotimi Paul) just wants to make as many people as possible dead.

With so few participating, the experiment looks unlikely to “succeed.” Even local drug kingpin Dmitri (Y’lan Noel) has no intention of taking advantage. However, the NFFA won’t give in that easily so they become a little more…personally involved.

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The Writing

As with every PURGE film, FIRST PURGE was written by franchise creator James DeMonaco. And like every PURGE film before it, this one values mood and speed over dialogue or characterization. Take, for instance, that line Nya shuts down her would be sexual assaulter with. It’s not great stuff.

However, DeMonaco continues to smartly set and flesh out the rules of this alternate America. It makes no sense the moment you dig into it, but his scripts cast a sort of spell. While you are in the world, they manage to make things feel cohesive. Illogic reigns, but DeMonaco’s writing has a kind of brute force to it. It does not give you much room to really sit down and ponder the mechanics of it all until after you leave the theatre.

It only after you get the taste of dystopia out of your mouth that you contemplate the flaws. Things like, “If I stole something on Purge Day, couldn’t I just be arrested the next day for possessing stolen property?”

THE FIRST PURGE: Dmitri
Y’lan Noel has all kinds of tickets to the gun show in THE FIRST PURGE. (Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

Casting The Leads of THE FIRST PURGE

As with the writing, what actors are asked to do allow little space for them to stretch and show range. Thus, a lot of what matters is charisma and conveying base emotions. Be intriguing and scared or murderous and interesting and you’ll be doing your job well in a PURGE movie.

By that measure, Davis makes Nya work. She is passionate, dedicated, and more than little conflicted about her ex Dmitri, and thus, her own past. Her choice to stay behind while trying to send her brother to Brooklyn makes a kind of moral sense for her. A viewer might think her not also jumping on the bus is a terrible choice, but we get it.

That brother, Isaiah, is a bit more of a difficult case. Wade never made me believe that he had enough anger in his heart or murderous impulse in his soul to go through with his plan. However — with where the character goes — perhaps that makes sense? I’m not sure if Wade just wasn’t bringing enough depth to Isaiah or showing us the character’s cards from the jump.

Lastly, I truly thought Noel was great. Again, not a lot of intense acting needed here, but his charisma, guilt, and slow boil anger implied enough complexity to his drug dealer that he came across as the richest character in the cast.

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Casting the Rest of THE FIRST PURGE Call Sheet

Paul’s Skeletor is a legitimately frightening figure from the moment we first see him. That creates a problem in the context of the movie, initially, however. If THE FIRST PURGE is all about the evil men do, dropping a character like Skeletor in the middle seems to run counter to those plans.

He combines Freddie’s talkativeness with Michael Myers ability to catch up to anyone while walking slowly. In other words a slasher in the middle of a movie distinctly in need of not having a slasher. While THE PURGE felt like a home invasion/slasher film, none of the installments to follow have.

FIRST PURGE, especially, seems like it needs not to come across that way. Therefore I liked Skeletor as a monster figure, but he too often tilted the movie where it did not seem to want to go. Tomei is underused. Her character makes so little sense, I’m not sure using her more would’ve been a good idea.

She shares nearly all her scenes with Patch Darragh’s Chief of Staff Arlo Sabian who is so blandly passively evil I think I landed on liking his performance. In a movie about how white entitlement birthed a monster of a “solution,” his underplaying Sabian feels like the exact right choice.

THE FIRST PURGE: Isaiah and Nya
Joivan Wade and Lex Scott David stare down a crime wave in a scene from THE FIRST PURGE. (Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

Filming

With DeMonaco passing up directorial duties for the first time, Gerard McMurray apes DeMonaco’s style fairly well. Improbably foggy streets, wild flashes of neon, dizzying camera moves, and quick cuts continue to be the PURGE’s aesthetic of choice.

His last set piece, a kind of DIE HARD meets THE RAID but not as good as either situation, does boast a bit of a different energy. Using emergency backup strobes to light the scene, he tracks masked invaders through a tenement apartment. As they increasingly become more exposed and fewer in numbers, McMurray manages to add a different kind of tension. It veers away from the usual “I know there’s a jump scare coming” school that the PURGE films often — but less and less — use  to get your heart racing.

Probably McMurray’s best feat as director here is giving the film a sense of purpose and hope. After all, we know this is only the first purge of nearly two decades worth to come.

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Striking the Set

These continue to fascinate me. In the abstract, I’d be certain they would not be something I would choose to watch or see anything worthwhile about. And yet, I’d recommend THE FIRST PURGE, and the previous two installments, but I can’t exactly call them quality cinema.

Plus, they leave you — this one in particular — feeling terrible as they too easily link up with the horrible things that are actually happening in our world. I don’t think The Purge is ever coming. Nonetheless, THE FIRST PURGE’s invocation of white supremacists, a government that isn’t just pro-rich but virulently anti-poor, and a too easily complicit news media still makes the skin crawl.

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