What is The First Purge?
A prequel to the Purge franchise, The First Purge tells the origin story of the annual night of legalised crime which sees US citizens run riot without fear of recriminations. The story centres on Isaiah (Joivan Wade) who is just starting to dabble in a spot of drug dealing in his impoverished and neglected Staten Island neighbourhood. When he gets into bother with a local troublemaker-cum-addict, the sister with whom he lives — and who is trying to keep their heads above water while keeping them both shielded from criminal dealings — is not happy. With the first ever experimental ‘Purge’ about to take place on Staten Island, and residents incentivised to take part with handouts if they agree both to stay put and to kill, Isaiah sees an opportunity to make money and get revenge. With the area’s drug kingpin refusing to leave in order to protect his empire and a government keen to make the night a success, you just know things aren’t going to end well.
If you ever wondered how the ‘Purge’ came into being as a concept, The First Purge exists to fill in the blanks. And where the original 2013 movie mostly steered clear of political overtones, this prequel makes its politics abundantly clear.
We’re left in no doubt that the country needs to take drastic action. Crime is spiralling out of control because the stock market is down, unemployment is up, there’s an opioid epidemic and the economy, in short, is collapsing. It feels all-too-familiar, in fact, with the reasons attributed to the creation of the ‘Purge’ mirroring real life. This is, in large part, where the horror of the film comes from. While it may not show scene after shocking scene of graphic violence, much like the dystopia presented in The Handmaid’s Tale, we fully believe this could happen.
The Freakiest Scene
There is tremendous power in one gruesome scene, however, involving an unhinged drug addict known as Skeletor. When he ‘releases his pent-up anger’ at a street party, it’s carnage. The sequence stays with you not only because of its horrifying imagery and the fact it’s all so heartbreakingly avoidable, but also because it’s reminiscent of recent real acts of terrorism.
Skeletor is both an unsettling and sympathetic villain. Although his character — like the rest of the characters in the film — is grossly underdeveloped, he’s unpredictable and unstable. Which makes him scary. On top of that, he’s an example of a person who the system has failed. An addict, he also clearly has mental health issues. He’s a man in desperate need of intervention. And yet, when it comes to this social experiment, the authorities are only too willing to exploit him. As viewers, our feelings towards him are ambivalent and that’s effective.
If you go into The First Purge expecting mainly graphic, bloody violence and horror, you may find yourself disappointed. Sure, there’s some but scenes could be a whole lot messier. It’s fair to say, The First Purge pulls its punches. But this isn’t primarily a horror film. In the traditional sense, anyway. First and foremost, it’s a social commentary – and that’s where its failure to deliver fully developed characters hurts it. It tries to be several films in one and dilutes everything in the process.
With underexplored backstories for the three main characters, we’re given little reason to invest in them. The emotional stakes are therefore low. Trying to humanise and redeem Y’lan Noel’s drug lord Dmitri is admirable — director Gerard McMurray is also keen to show this character, like Skeletor, as a victim of his circumstances — but his missing dimensions make it difficult to buy into. Here’s a guy enjoying — and flashing — the trappings his life choices have brought him; on top of that, we see him prepared to use a gun, or order others to use theirs, and mean it. When, at the end, he’s transformed into a John McClane-style lone-wolf hero, we know how we’re supposed to feel. But we just don’t. Similarly, the audience could and should care more for Isaiah and sister Nya (Lex Scott Davis). But questions we have over their past choices and circumstances nag at us and we’re kept at arm’s length.
Dial Back To Dial Up
The film’s strength is definitely in the themes it broaches. Building on recent advancements as far as highlighting black issues goes, The First Purge follows in the footsteps of the likes of Get Out, and TV shows Luke Cage and Black Lightning. And, to a degree, Black Panther, too. If only McMurray had found a way to bring a smaller and more focused story to the screen, and concentrated on better character development. Coupled with fewer, less widespread bangs and reduced sensationalism, the messages would have been more powerful.
It could have taken its cue from one of the films it recalls – namely Assault on Precinct 13, Escape From New York or even Attack the Block. Instead, the film spends an inordinate amount of time on an implausible Die Hard-style finale that is unconvincing and unnecessarily showy. With a really difficult-to-watch strobing effect thrown in for kicks.
Is The First Purge Good?
Building in horror, action, humour and gangster flick-cum-dystopian thriller elements, The First Purge spreads itself way too thinly for a film that comes in at just 97 minutes. And consequently, it diminishes the impact of the important socio-political messages it aims to convey. Under-par characterisation, too much ambition and a lack of focus ensure The First Purge underperforms despite great intentions and some powerful raw material.
The First Purge hits screens in the UK and US on July 4, and in Australia on August 2.