Ah, “The Purge”—the archetype of a filmmaker having one original thought and turning it into a franchise. “What if all crime was legal for one night?” is the kind of question that bored adolescents bandy about with their zombie apocalypse plans. But writer/director James DeMonaco figured out how to make that demographic pay to see the answer, and due to the success of that business model, we’re getting the fourth entry in only five years: “The First Purge”.
2013’s “The Purge” didn’t start the series with a bang. DeMonaco seemed to want viewers to take his silly concept seriously. The result was a by-the-numbers horror that thought it could substitute gritty claustrophobia for social commentary. In response to its critical failure, the franchise pivoted from plan A to B movie: “The Purge: Anarchy” upped the action ante, and “The Purge: Election Year” fully embraced its potential to become a gleeful exercise in colorful pulp violence. By then, the social commentary was simplistic and streamlined, but that worked well with the series’ brand of absurd catharsis. Slap a label on the bad guys and let the slapstick commence.
But like the political division it preys upon, the series was doomed to repeat history. New prequel “The First Purge” doesn’t just return the franchise to its story’s origin—it falls headfirst into its original sins. Gone is the neon eccentricity of “Election Year”: “The First Purge” is a Very Serious Movie indeed, and DeMonaco once again has Something To Say. In the effort to be taken seriously, the prequel purges the franchise of all its good graces.
Even during a time when the U.S. government encroaches despotism without a care, there is simply no way to frame the Purge as if it’s realistic for modern American society. But a prequel has to prequel, so “The First Purge” takes what was barely subtext in the original trilogy and shoves it to the surface without restraint. After extreme right-wing party The New Founding Fathers of America takes control of the country, they decide to test a psychologist’s purge experiment on (surprise!) a low-income community of color. The NFFA says they’re giving Americans an outlet, but their secret motive is (surprise!) to create a white supremacist empire. The psychologist’s motive is that she just wants to see the data, which is actually surprising because of how heinously idiotic of a reason that is to let people die.
That’s not even the tip of the dumb iceberg. The main characters are mostly ghettoized African-Americans, and though the very non-African-American DeMonaco stepped away from the director’s chair, he still wrote the dialogue—which goes about as offensively as possible. The conversations are as cringe inducing as Quentin Tarantino’s affinity for racial slurs. The movie’s message is self-contradictory poverty porn: at one moment it praises marginalized people who choose non-violence, but the hero is a gang leader who murders his way out of every tight spot. It’s the kind of movie that criticizes the NRA to get its woke cred before making guns seem like the coolest tools in dystopia.
The franchise’s return to gritty seriousness makes its violence hypocritical. “Election Year” could criticize violence while being violent because it was cartoonish entertainment. “The First Purge” wants to say something important about violence while sadistically indulging in violence itself, which is gross and disingenuous. At no point is this more clearly demonstrated than a scene in which sexual assault is played for a jump scare. No political points scored here.
Where previous “Purge” movies rested on their amusing laurels, “The First Purge” tries and fails at every turn. Its tweaks in visual and sound design literally gave me a migraine (epileptics beware). The direction and editing go together like bread and blood, resulting in a movie that’s choppier than a maniac with a machete. Even minor characters give noticeably bad performances. Despite having a bigger budget than all its predecessors, “The First Purge” looks cheaper than the first “Purge”. This movie walks a tightrope of being terrible at every point of possible potential. It’s almost impressive.
Though it does have the gall to end with a trailer for the “Purge” TV series, so, at least the filmmakers are brave in one sense.