Cinematic Releases: The First Purge (2018) - Reviewed

When the first film in The Purge franchise was released in 2013, a healthy portion of the country felt relatively safe under the warm, fuzzy blanket of Barack Obama's White House leadership. While it was not entirely unbelievable to imagine the events of The Purge as an actual possible future, for most of us, it felt a little silly that the dread brought on by the film came from the idea that someday it could be us hiding from our neighbors, who just happen to turn into murderers once a year, for funsies. Because in 2013, most people still believed that their neighbors were good people. 

Most people still had a little bit of faith and trust in their government and the justice system. Most people never really believed that it could get even close to bad enough that something like a purge would have even a snowball's chance in Hell of being taken seriously. But, it's now 2018 and people are a whole lot different than they were five years ago. The government is a whole lot different than it was five years ago. And thus, The Purge franchise is a whole lot different than it was five years ago.  The seeds of distrust that have spread through the people of the United States since the first film premiered have brought an entirely different tone and depth of horror to The First Purge (2018). 

The film begins with the ascent of the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA), sponsored by their BFF's the NRA, of course. The NFFA is here to drain the sw-, nope. The NFFA is here to Make Ameri-, nope. The NFFA is here to take back America! There we go. Their plan, and our story, center around an experiment created by Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei). The experiment is the first purge, and Staten Island and its residents are the lucky lab rats. Because, of course, the way to make America great again is to bribe the poor to kill each other. The NFFA lures the residents of the island to stay and play with cash bonuses, and of course, money talks, so people stay. Purging commences and bad things happen. 

Our anti-hero, Dmitri (Y'lan Noel), is the leader of the ensemble cast and is easily the most layered, fleshed out character in the film. Dmitri may solidly fit into the bad boy with morals trope, but he's definitely not unoriginal, in his character arc or portrayal. Noel gives an underlying warmth and heart to the role, which is impressive considering he spends the majority of his screen time performing bad ass action sequences. Dmitri's counterpart and co-lead is his ex-girlfriend, Purge-protesting Nya (Lex Scott Davis). Nya is the film's moral compass, calling out Dmitri early in the film for his illicit activities and their contribution to the problems plaguing the country, and taking a stand for what she believes is right. Davis is solid in the role, and she really shines in scenes with Noel and with Joivan Wade, who plays her little brother, Isaiah. The sole comic relief in the film is Nya's friend, Dolores (Mugga). Her timing is flawless and the laughs she brings are genuine and necessary, considering how truly dark this film goes. 

Pacing is the film's biggest problem. Exposition scenes that drag on too long are especially noticeable later in the film, once the action intensifies and certain revelations come to pass. The slight hiccups here really do a disservice to the intensity and fervor of the film, though not enough to make it all that much less impactful. James DeMonaco's script is taut, and there are a couple of little surprises that really work. The action and fight sequences are well-shot, but hard to watch. The reality of the violence, a great deal of it exactly what we see in cell phone footage on Twitter, or on the news, is tough to swallow in the context of a fictional event. It's also extremely effective. 

The major difference between this film and those that proceeded it is that the violence of the first three films had an almost cartoonish quality. This is not to say those films are not brutal or horrifying, but the violence and the manner in which it is portrayed in The First Purge are extremely realistic, with several scenes that almost seem as if they were copied out of today's headlines and pasted into the script. The viewer's reaction to the decision to steep so much of the horror of the film in the horror of today's United States of America will determine whether they find the film to be exploitative and damaging, or simply art disturbingly imitating the terror of modern life. 

The Purge franchise is ever-changing, always showing the action from a different perspective. That's why these films are so interesting, engrossing and popular. Like its predecessors, The First Purge does not shy away from brutality.  But this installment takes the franchise to an entirely different level by bringing extreme reality to the table, forcing the audience to recognize the likeness between this terrifying, fictional America, and America today. The First Purge isn’t perfect in execution, but the message rings true, loud and clear. 

--Josie Stec