The First Purge abolishes subtlety

Lex Scott David and Joivan Wade in The First Purge

The weird thing about prequels is, although they’re meant to be the first, no one ever sees them as such. They’re supposed to tell the beginning of a story, but you should never start by the prequel; the prequel is there to fill in the blanks, which makes most prequels fairly anemic if you strip them of context. For some reason, I’d never seen any of the Purge movies before I sat down to watch The First Purge, and I worried that the film would just be a series of namedrops and back-story bits to fill out a complicated universe that would remain firmly out of grasp. Thankfully, none of that is true – The First Purge is as much a prequel to a series of cheekily political B-level actioners as it is a prequel to the collapse of civilization.

In the near future, an ultraconservative party named the New Founding Fathers of America has decided to experiment with new population control measures they call The Purge. For twelve hours, citizens of Staten Island (all of whom have volunteered for the experiment in exchange for $5000) will be left to roam free without any laws or repercussions to breaking them. The experiment is a big deal in the impoverished community, and as the purge looms, pretty much only those for whom the cash kickback can mean a radically different life choose to stay put.

That’s certainly the case for Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and her recently-turned-truant little brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade); she wants to stay to pocket the money, while he wants to use the newly-lax rules to take vengeance on a crackhead (Rotimi Paul) who humiliated him. Nya’s ex, Dmitri (Y’Lan Noel) wants to stick around to protect his growing drug empire from roving gangs, but it all seems for naught at first when most people decide to party and commit minor vandalism – until the NFFA decides to scramble the data of the so-called experiment in order to get the results they seek.

The series has long moved from its meagre origins as a B-grade Ethan Hawke vehicle into all-out political allegory, which it does with a respectable lack of subtlety. Hard to say that a movie in which the African-American protagonist chokes out a guy in a blackface mask to reveal that he has blue eyes and… uh… distinctive blond hair is really playing a sophisticated game of political chess, but like Sicario last week, The First Purge draws on current hopelessness and the endless barrage of darkness we face daily to draw prurient thrills.

Critic Manny Farber developed this theory of White Elephants vs. Termite Art, where he posited that films seen as white elephants (portentous and issue-driven, drawing attention to their own importance) were always less likely to get at the heart or a topic or a theme than what he called termite art (dirty, unassuming B-pictures that had much more leeway in depicting controversial or debated issues since they were more or less ignored by the cognoscenti). This theory has more or less run its course now that critics have a much more nuanced understanding of genre than they did in the 50s (Get Out would not have been nominated for an Oscar in the area of white elephants and termite art), but it does seem like The First Purge makes a pretty decent attempt at bringing this notion kicking and screaming into the world of unassuming franchises with altogether too many sequels. It’s the kind of movie that the people it expressly hates might actually fall across one day and watch, which is certainly more of a baller move than making a prestige-y drama that may give you the opportunity to call out your political enemies on a red carpet.

The complete lack of subtlety works for the film’s most jacked genre thrills, from scenes of mass hysteria to a running subplot featuring Marisa Tomei as the sociologist who is inadvertently roped into condoning government-sanctioned, militia-based genocide and culminating in  a third-act apartment building siege that draws from Attack the Block, Dredd and The Raid for maximum effect. It works significantly less in the film’s most character-driven moments, when the film’s lean genre thrills suddenly drop down to a crawl for soft-focus soap opera moments and to accommodate a structure that ultimately requires way too many characters for what a movie like this can truly handle. The First Purge could benefit from a couple of prunings, especially considering that the audience knows from its status as a prequel that this can only get so far.

There’s not a tremendous amount of genre originality in what can essentially be described as John Carpenter’s Do The Right Thing, even if it never really approaches the heights of either of those comparisons. Despite some fairly radical decisions (an all-POC cast and director, for one), the inherent limits of the Purge films (this one doesn’t extend past the customary 12-hour period, making any and all character development feel shoehorned-in) and the limitations of the genre which take the film into familiar slice-and-dice horror territory too often really put a damper on the film as a true piece of multiplex agitprop. So many of these films tend to turn into questionably fascistic middle-class fantasias that seeing one literally about survival of the classes feels novel, even if the end product is sort of stupid. With that in mind, though, there is something undeniable about watching some people of color mow down a truck full of pasty-assed KKK dudes in 2018. ■

The First Purge is in theatres Wednesday, July 4th. Watch the trailer here:

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