I was a little worried with the previous Purge movie, Election Year, the third in the series, that the concept might be running out of steam, and that perhaps we didn’t need a fourth. Now that latest installment — The First Purge — is here. Turns out, I needn’t have worried. This most shrewd of sci-fi horror franchises is as sharp as ever with its skewering of the particular American propensity for embracing violence as a means to an end. In fact, it reaches yet further down into the unpleasant flipside of the American myth for even more savage satire than it has given us before. As it looks back into its own timeline to events that are barely removed from us in future time, its dystopia becomes even more terrifyingly plausible. This is the rare prequel that doesn’t feel superfluous. The blanks it is filling in address some of the doubts about how its horrors could have come to pass without even having to stretch to connect them to our now.
It is two days before “the experiment” is about to begin. This “first Purge” is the brainchild of social scientist Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei), overseen by political operative Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh), a member of the staff at the White House now held by the Christian fundamentalist party the New Founding Fathers of America. Staten Island, the New York City borough, is to be sealed off for this initial 12-hour period during which all crime, including murder, will be legal. The idea, as we’ve learned in the previous films, is that what will in the near future become an annual event is intended as a “societal catharsis” for stressed-out Americans to release their rage and their anger in a way that is channeled and sanctioned, in order to keep the rest of the year quiet and peaceful.
But are Americans actually itching to let loose in this way? Nya (hugely charismatic Lex Scott Davis), who is leading the local anti-Purge protests, most definitely does not. (Oh, is a black woman heading up the resistance? Now that is plausible.) Her ex, the local drug kingpin Dmitri (electrifying newcomer Y’lan Noel), doesn’t want to, either: violence to him is not a game, not fun, but a method of exerting what he sees as necessary power and control (as it is, ahem, for the NFFA, too); he instructs his footsoldiers to just stay home during “the experiment,” lest rival gangs use it as an excuse to make a move on them. Even Updale and the NFFA believe that ordinary people need an incentive: they are paying Staten Island residents to remain for “the experiment” (those who want to leave may, though without payment, of course), and will pay more to those who “participate”... if they survive. But why do even the black and brown residents of the low-income housing project where Nya lives with her brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade) — people who might justifiably have the greatest grievances against American society, which is why Updale is even more narrowly focusing her “experiment” there — need to be bribed into engaging in something that allegedly they already should want to do?
Oh, is a black woman heading up the anti-Purge resistance? Of course she is.
Remarkably, and even more so than the previous movies, The First Purge is both cheeringly optimistic — about human nature, suggesting that most people truly do not want to hurt others, even if it’s “approved” — and cynical, about the manipulations of the powerful that turn us against one another for their own nefarious purposes. As the series has done to great effect throughout, this latest installment obliquely examines the difference between what is legal and what is moral, and the gap where they don’t overlap. But unlike the earlier movies, The First Purge exclusively centers people of color — the only white people here are villains — and roots our sympathies firmly with them as the systematic and institutional violent oppression they are subjected to in our real world is here stripped of all pretense of being perpetrated by “accident” or by “bad apples.” Here we witness powerful white people watching gleefully — for Staten Island is under total surveillance by CCTV and drones, “the experiment” being broadcast to the world — as brown and black are murdered at their behest. Suddenly, this series has become a nightmare on the scale of The Handmaid’s Tale about racism rather than sexism. (Series creator James DeMonaco, who is white, here hands over the director’s chair to Gerard McMurray, who is black, and whose track record includes producing Fruitvale Station, a vital recent film on the African-American experience. DeMonaco returns as screenwriter.)
This is a much more pointed and much more enormously shame-on-America focus than I had suggested when I mentioned Handmaid in my review of the first movie. And it’s possible now, today, with this movie, only because the real world has moved closer to the world of The Purge... and in only a few years. (The first movie debuted just in 2013!) The not-at-all indirect reference to the current President of the United States here may be as over-the-top and on-the-nose as the barely-even-a-metaphor of The First Purge, but it’s absolutely necessary when a significant portion of the US population refuses to acknowledge how frighteningly close what we see here is.
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