Directed by Gerard McMurray. Starring Marisa Tomei, Y’lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis, Jovian Wade, Patch Darragh.
The Plot: America is in sharp decline. Unemployment rates are rising, along with crime. Neo-fascist party the New Founding Fathers of America have seized power in the White House and want to make America great again. Behavioural scientist Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei) proposes a radical solution – The Experiment or, as it has been dubbed, The Purge. Staten Island, New York will be the test zone. For 12 hours, all crime including murder will be legal as a way of purging anger and frustration. Those who stay will get a monetary reward. Those who participate and purge will get an even higher reward. African-American brother and sister Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and Isaiah (Jovian Wade) find themselves in the crossfire, along with drug dealer Dmitri (Y’lan Noel). As Staten Island descends into chaos, only the strongest will survive…
The Verdict: Looking back on it now, The Purge Trilogy (2013 – 2016) grows ever more relevant as an insane vision of America. A Trumpian nightmare if you will, given the current President’s divide and conquer strategy. The story seemed spent with the heavily satirical Election Year. But what’s this? A prequel has emerged in the form of The First Purge, rewinding the clock not to the first nationwide purge, but a self-contained experimental purge. It’s like The Stanford Experiment crossed with Escape From New York, a societal test to see if Americans can embrace their inner killer. However, not all is at it seems this time around.
It’s an intriguing idea to go back to the beginning of what was originally a compact, low-budget home invasion thriller a la The Strangers. There was a hint of a wider origin story and The First Purge gives meat to those bones. However, this demented (frighteningly possible?) vision of America is a little starved. Mostly in the satire department, which was the previous films’ greatest strength. The satire has been blunted with a machete here, reduced instead to the higher-ups staring at screens and cheering on kills like it was The Running Man. Where are the darker underpinnings?
James DeMonaco, who wrote and directed the first three films also returns here, but hands over the director’s megaphone to second-timer Gerard McMurray. DeMonaco’s script just isn’t as involving this time around, lacking that spark that got you behind the characters in the previous films. Instead, he repositions it as a story of Black America v White America, even daringly moving a drug dealer into a heroic role. The actors do a decent job, but their cannon fodder characters are so thinly sketched that it’s hard to care that much about them. There’s a strong whiff of indifference about the whole film, extending even to a certain character being coldly offed from a remote distance.
If there was a more analytical film about human behaviour and its unpredictability, then it was certainly lost somewhere in the script stage. This is a ridiculously loud and violent film, though it seems more like a borderline 18 (it’s a speculative fantasy after all). The over-the-top ending provoked laughter at this reviewer’s screening. That says it all really. While it does manage to be mildly entertaining, McMurray squanders the film’s potential to say more about America being a country built on bullets. What next? The Second Purge? For fans of the franchise only. Otherwise, you’d be better off not purging.