The rising social discord and division of American politics in the run-up and following the 2016 election has been, on the whole, awful for everyone with a mind towards peace, justice, empathy, and decency. Many of us are watching the nation turn away from our core values, and suffer the anxiety that accompanies the role of futile spectator. But if there is a group of unlikely benefactors from these years of chaos, it is those pop culture creators who were already sitting in the drivers seat of intellectual property primed to succeed in the Trump Era. Most such titles are TV shows: Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, FX’s The Americans, HBO’s Westworld. In the theaters, though, nobody was more primed to take on the Trump Years than James DeMonaco, creator of the low-budget, quick turn-around, exploitation film series, “Purge.”
The First Purge is the fourth film in creator DeMonaco’s series. The Purge arrived in 2013. It was a tight thriller, set mostly in a single home, telling the story of one family trying to survive Purge Night (12 hours in which all crime, including murder and rape, are legal). The two sequels expanded the world greatly, bringing the action into the eruptions of violence outside. Purge: Anarchy (2014) and Purge: Election Night (2016) also added overt political commentary and significantly ramped up the body count and gore, turning Purge into a gleeful exploitation series, a Carpenter-esque, violent affair akin to Assault on Precinct 13.
DeMonaco, who has written all four of these films but directed only the first three–Fruitvale Station producer Gerard McMurray helms the latest–seems to be equally terrified and electrified by what the world has offered him, and with The First Purge, he goes straight at the America we now inhabit.
The opening moments of The First Purge detail a collection of video clips of protests unfolding in streets around America. Some of the clips are real footage, others are not; the difference between fiction and fact is seamless. The footage builds to news coverage of the election of a new president: an outsider from an upstart party called the New Founding Fathers of America. NFFA ran on nationalism, free speech, and funding from the NRA. Eventually we see President Bracken reassuring the people of the United States: “The American dream is dead,” he says. “We will let America dream again.”
The language makes the reference clear, and The First Purge leaves no room for interpretation regarding its view of our current administration.
This film is an origin story. Purge Night is, as of The First Purge, known as The Experiment. The Administration is testing the hypothesis that if you give people one night of lawlessness, they will in fact become better citizens the other 364. The Experiment is happening on Staten Island, and residents are offered $5,000 to spend the night on the island. Additional monies are offered for those who “actively participate,” i.e. brutalize and murder their neighbors.
Heretofore in the Purge series, the American bloodlust for murder has been taken as a given. Offered the option to purge, people will purge. DeMonaco smartly upends that precept in The First Purge, showing a tight-knit community, comprised mostly of low-income people of color, who don’t take up the offer. Instead they hold block parties. Murder, it would seem, isn’t a natural appetite. When the Bracken Administration, represented primarily by Bracken’s Chief-of-Staff, sees that his violent delights are producing non-violent ends, he decides to up the action, sending in hired mercenaries donning garments of the KKK and White Supremacists, to, as they say, start shit.
Shit, they indeed start, and the people of Staten Island, led by the island’s top drug supplier, D (Y’lan Noel), fight back. As for the rest of the story, no need exists to recount its beats. There are good people making dumb decisions trying to survive. You’ve seen it before and you know how the story goes: Purge Night is nationalized, and the NFFA’s power grows.
Early in The First Purge, D is asked if he is excited for The Experiment. He says no, because he doesn’t know what it is. And if he doesn’t know what something is, it can’t be trusted.
What success The First Purge finds results primarily because Gerard McMurray completely understands what this movie is. It is a violent expression of violent times, a horror movie that indulges in all manner of awfulness, while never forgetting that it has something to say. What it says may not be complex–messages around economic injustice, Black Lives Matter, pussy-grabbing presidents are made abundantly clear–but how it goes about its messaging is fun, frightening, and surprisingly poignant. It understands that audiences are in disbelief about what is happening to America under Trump, even as it asks us to come and enjoy the realization of our worst nightmares.
That’s the paradox of violent social commentary. It must always portray that which is most dismaying about life, and it must make that violence entertaining and condemnable. The First Purge succeeds in the first endeavor, and while it may not live up to the second, it certainly gets close.
–Christopher Zumski Finke