The First Purge (2018) (Review)

After wrapping up the original trilogy that grew stronger with each consecutive instalment, The Purge franchise comes full circle and heads back to the beginning with a look at how The First Purge unfolded: an experimental trial confined to Staten Island, where residents are offered money to stay within the Purge zone, with further incentives for those who actively participate and unleash their anger, preferably - for the newly-elected government, the New Founding Fathers of America - through murder, crime and violence. 

For a franchise that began as a home invasion thriller disguised as a dystopian future, the scary reality is that The First Purge plays out stronger as a documentary-like examination of socio-political struggles and race relations, one which strikes a saddening chord with current events. In a Us vs. Them 'survive the night' package, the parallels are unavoidable and have helped the filmmakers tap into the zeitgeist.

To push the crime rate below 1% for the rest of the year, the NFFA test a psychological theory that vents aggression for one night in an isolated community. Making all crime legal for 12 hours, the NFFA hope communities will use this as a window to unshackle their inhibitions and rage -- but as the night wears on, true motivations become clear and drastic actions are taken by both sides of the fight. Written by James DeMonaco (who directed the initial three films and has stayed on as producer) and directed by Gerald McMurray, The First Purge may not be as successful as sequels Anarchy and Election Year, but it still scorches with its relevance, thrills and messages.

As the credits rolled on The First Purge, it struck me how much this prequel reflected the trilogy it follows; the first act serviceably lays the foundations for what's to follow, but it's not quite as deep as it needs to be; the second act (Anarchy) is solid, showing signs of progress but hampered by its inability to fully fulfil the promise of its concept; while the third act (Election Year) is all killer, no filler, delivering thrills and sledgehammer political overcurrents that elevate it beyond the simple fare, something it is often unfairly disregarded as. It continues the pulpy, enjoyable B-movie thrills while beginning a new chapter for America's most meditative movie franchise.

Once again, the screenplay and characters are not this franchise's strong suit. Election Year aside, which featured some genuinely strong characterisation and development arcs, it returns to delivering one-note characters used to represent groups and communities, rather than individuals in their own right. One could theorise that using broad, blank canvases allows audiences to see themselves reflected in the activists fighting against radical change and elitist governments, emphasising the political parallels and boldening your emotional connection to them and their actions. But others may shout 'lazy writing' and that would be perfectly valid. I like to think that this franchise is smarter than that though, and can see the attempts made to use the characters as a mirror image of ourselves, making them malleable to our own resistances.

Narratively, in going back to explore its roots, The First Purge answers a number of questions while whetting viewer's appetites by asking a few more, too. It gives a chance for the filmmakers to contextualise and show what lead to the violent event, demonstrating the lengths the governments went to in order to make the experiment a success, and the sinister intention's that lie beyond what began as a sociological test. As ever, some plots thread get tangled up and some are completely lost as the chaos escalates - but it wouldn't be a Purge instalment if they didn't bite off more than they could chew. I was keen to delve into Doctor Updale's character further, the press' coverage of the event and the government's passing of the experiment -- but it pushes the political agenda more heavily instead and falls back into the 'survive the night' structure that has worked so well for the sequels. Moving forward, I'd encourage it to test new angles in its structure and packaging - despite the refreshed narrative angle, it runs the risk of retreading old ground if the same 'nowhere to hide' plot keeps unfolding.

Serviceably solid performances are delivered by the whole ensemble, who do a decent job elevating feeble characters. Y'Lan Noel brings a snarling intensity that is well-counterbalanced by the humanity and humility of Lex Scott Davis' Nya. Marsia Tomei is promising as Updale but underutilised, a disappointingly disregarded element of the plot, while Mugga gives it her all and brings some light-hearted humour to proceedings, despite not always feeling entirely needed or necessary.  Another MVP is composer Kevin Lax, whose score superbly fuels the suspense that allows this prequel to work rather well.

Tight direction is brought in from Gerald McMurray, who crafts a handful of truly brilliant set pieces: some of the franchises' very best. Contained most notably in the third and final act, packed with intensity and flair, The First Purge saves the strongest stretch until last, invigorating a film that stalled on a couple of occasions earlier on, rekindling the momentum and energy as we reach its climax. The looming inevitability works wonder for the mood of the piece, even when it slows down in the middle section, finding a sharp tonal balance; the action is well-managed and choreographed with the KKK set piece particularly slick and impressive. When The First Purge gets it right, it really excels.

It's a shame that The First Purge isn't as well-rounded as the other sequels in the collection but it remains an enjoyable, pulpy thrill ride with a lot on its angry mind; I'd rather a film try and struggle than not try at all. It played well for the audience, with the packed screening reacting appropriately when intended and it continues the series in a solid style - even though it bucks the upward trajectory of the franchise. I'd argue the series still hasn't executed its 'legal murder for 12 hours' premise as effectively as it could have, but the franchise is one that I will to succeed, and will root for every step of the way. While The First Purge doesn't take first in the ranking, let's hope that by the time the next of these movies are released, it will look less like a documentary and more like an audacious dystopia.


Summary: The First Purge successfully expands on the franchise's roots by bringing it full circle and while the results aren't as thrilling as the series' high-points, it's a thought-provoking and pulpy parallel that has sadly become a mirror image of our dark times.