I have a complicated history with the Purge movies. I liked the first one. It was a simple story about the events in one single house during the annual Purge. The Purge: Anarchy opened the world up a bit and showed the events of the night unfolding on the streets of Los Angeles. While I find that my memory for the second film is not nearly as strong as that of the first I do remember enjoying it. The franchise turned political with the release of The Purge: Election Year. This felt like a missed opportunity and the movie failed to hold my attention, I barely remember anything from it. The First Purge serves as a prequel to the others and certainly ramps up the political message. Just a look at the red hat above will tell you that and it certainly was no mistake that it was released on July 4th.
In a lot of ways The First Purge is the scariest of the Purge movies. What used to feel like a fictional examination of the human psyche now plays out like a concept that doesn’t seem so far fetched. In a lot of ways I don’t recognize the country that I grew up in anymore. We have become a nation divided along a number of different lines. Political ideology, race, gender, sexuality and economic status have all become factors that we have used to separate ourselves from “the others”. Kindness, inclusion, empathy and understanding have been replaced by hostility, fear, division and hatred. I applaud the filmmakers for attempting to shine a light on these issues. The question is, does The First Purge help?
While it doesn’t fall upon any movie to fix society’s ills, the filmmakers do open themselves up to this type of questioning by tackling the subject. Along these lines I would say the The First Purge does at least a little good by simply bringing these issues up. The movie certainly addresses some very real fears that a lot of people have and it looks at them in an interesting way. It fails in at least one major respect though. Too often it feels like the movie is enjoying the violence that it is pretending to denounce just a little too much. This isn’t the first film to encounter this issue. Many, most notably Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, have started with the intention of showing how horrible our most violent tendencies are only to end up seeming to glorify those very acts.
The First Purge starts off with news clips explaining how bad things have become in America and outlining the rise of a new political party which seizes control of the White House. They champion the idea of the Purge (a period of time when all crime is legal) as a way for Americans to get out their anger and frustration. To prove that this will work the conduct a small scale experimental Purge in Staten Island. In order to get people to stay and participate, they pay them. This, of course, exploits the economically disadvantaged and people of color. The pay starts at $5,000, which is too much money for them to turn down. There is a mention of more money for the people who actually participate in the purge as opposed to those who just stay in town. Essentially the government is using poor people as guinea pigs for this new idea, without concern for whether they live or die. Due to the current climate in the country, there is a large number of disenfranchised people who would not see this as far fetched.
The concept is timely and intriguing. Things don’t come together quite that well though. The movie suffers from boiler plate, uninteresting characters. There is the poor girl who wants to save the world one person at a time, who will never let go of her idealism no matter how bad things get for her. She has a younger brother who is on the verge of becoming a street thug because he’s tired of being poor. There is the neighborhood drug dealer who has a heart of gold. And of course there is the completely soulless and evil government official. There isn’t a single original or interesting character in the group. The cast does the best they can with it but there is nothing for them to work with. Marisa Tomei is an Academy Award winning actress and she couldn’t turn her paper thin character into anything, the rest of them never stood a chance.
Technically the film is well made. Director Gerard McMurray uses the lighting effectively to create some great looking shots and some impactful moments. He too is hamstrung by the poor script though as the stakes never feel all that high and the tension is undercut because the characters never feel like actual people. I hope that he is given a chance to direct a good script at some point because I think he has the ability to do something great with it.
The First Purge is a great movie that strives to be mediocre. This film had the chance to be something really special. It could have given a voice to a large segment of our population who currently feel voiceless. Instead it wastes that potential on bland characters and a fascination with violence for violence sake. What had the potential to be one of the most potent films in recent memory settled for being nothing more than another entry in a franchise with ever diminishing returns.