The First Purge review - horror prequel doesn't pull any political punches
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Verdict: this film is essential. Binge the others, and go and see it right now.
The fourth in the explosive franchise, The First Purge takes us back in time to the start of its defining tradition: the establishment of one night a year where all crime including murder is legal.
The previous films have begged the question of how the political party known as the New Founding Fathers were even elected into power with this veritably insane, murder-endorsing, racist, classist set of principles, but in the current political climate in America, there’s no need for the audience to suspend their disbelief at all.
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As the franchise has progressed, less and less focus has been placed on gratuitous and meaningless killing, rather slowly revealing the true extent of the nightmare that is systemic oppression targeting the marginalised and underprivileged communities in America. Where the presence of white and privileged characters that the audience is supposed root for has had its place in the second and third films, this fourth instalment does away with that entirely. No longer is there a need to remain palatable by giving any screen time to white and well-off incidental victims of the Purge — The First Purge does away with all subtlety regarding the government’s aims, and it’s a triumphant black fist that’s raised against them.
Everything from the Black Lives Matter posters framed in our protagonists’ apartment, to the government hired gangs dressed as bastardised policemen and Klansmen makes a bold and necessary political statement. While the horror and suspense of the violence is brilliantly done, more than ever that isn’t the real horror at all.
As with fellow Blumhouse Productions smash hit Get Out (2017), the horror is intermingled with moments of comedy that land perfectly for their intended audience — the creator of ‘The Purge Experiment,’ an apathetic white female scientist who refuses to engage in the politics of her theory, was laughed to her death in the cinema I was watching in. Her weak protests that come too little and far too late, are treated not as any sort of redemption by the narrative, but rather as a mirror of a certain kind of performative allyship that plagues progressive movements today, and the audience responded with recognition.
This first ever Purge is an experiment that takes place solely on Staten Island, and the inclusion of a financial incentive to remain on the island and to participate is the insidious tactic used to encourage the low-income communities to do so, although it becomes clear as the Purge progresses that the scientists’ and politicians’ expectations that poor Black and Latino communities would jump at the chance to go round murdering people couldn’t be further from the reality. It’s a damning condemnation of the racist rhetoric that pervades in America, as well as a triumphant celebration of community spirit and strength.
Lex Scott Davis follows in the footsteps of Carmen Ejogo and Betty Gabriel as our emotional tether throughout this Purge — do-gooder Nya, whose priority is to both protest the Purge experiment and protect as many people as she can. Her little brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade) is a little more conflicted, and the government is eager to redirect dissatisfaction and anger at the state back into this community in order to eliminate it. These two young talents absolutely shine in these complex roles, and bring weight to the vital messages being communicated.
Gang boss and drug baron with a heart of gold Dmitri (Y’lan Noel) is our Frank Grillo character replacement, with a whole lot more at stake. Gang politics that exist in the community are utilised brilliantly in the film to illustrate a hierarchy of relative evil, and we see how although some of the players feel that they’re making moves for their own advancement, they’re really just playing into exactly what the government wants them to do. Noel is a breakout star from Insecure, and he owns this role effortlessly. He’s a blockbuster action star in the making, with an incredible sensitivity that keeps audiences on his side no matter what.
Lastly deserving of mention is the incredibly Rotimi Paul, who I’ll be having nightmares about all summer. His character Skeletor inspires genuine horror — one of the only neighbourhood people who willingly commits violence and murder. An addict with clear mental health problems, the Purge simply gives him license, and even financial reward, for enacting the violence he always wanted to. His first kill is a man who on Purge night simply tried to rob an ATM — a perfect demonstration of the difference between what most people would do if all laws were lifted, compared to those who would be a threat whether laws were lifted or not.
Visually as always the film uses the brilliant mask motif to inspire fear, and there are some incredibly suspenseful sequences elevated by the genius idea of government issued recording contact lenses that give Purge participants eerie glowing eyes.
Lastly, the soundtrack goes hard throughout, especially when the gang are going about their business. The final scene and the credits blast Kendrick Lamar in what’s possible the best use of his music on screen (with stiff competition from the Creed II trailer, and of course Black Panther).
A perfect crescendo to hit home the messaging that has built this franchise into the political powerhouse no one ever would have guessed it would become, this film is a masterpiece.
The First Purge is in cinemas now, distributed by Universal Pictures.