DeMonaco mixes social satire with doses of heart-pounding horror
This Fourth of July, we’ve got a chance to celebrate America’s birth in a very American way — watching internecine warfare, spasms of savage violence and a dark government conspiracy pulling the strings. That’s right, it’s time for a new Purge.
“The First Purge ,” the fourth film in the franchise, is an origin story set in modern day New York that allows creator James DeMonaco to do what he does best — mix social satire with doses of heart-pounding horror. It’s a worthy addition to the B-movie “Purge” cannon, even as it’s depressingly prescient.
For those unfamiliar with the low-budget-but-high-earning “Purge” series, here’s how it works: In a dystopian near-future, the government, led by a nefarious party called the New Founding Fathers of America, allows an annual 12-hour period of lawlessness without recriminations. Over the course of a single night, rape, murder, robbery and everything else is permitted across the nation as a way to release anger but also a way to cull from an overpopulated nation and lower crime.
Over the past three films, DeMonaco has explored all kinds of different facets to this rich and complex notion, from gun control to the behavior of predatory corporations, to government brutality against people of color and class wars. This time, DeMonaco goes back to the root of the “societal catharsis” to dive into how murder is incentivized and celebrate the first resistance to the purges.
DeMonaco sets “The First Purge” on Staten Island, where the first beta test was launched (and is, incidentally, his hometown). He has bafflingly attracted Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei to play the behavioral scientist who has designed the purge for the NRA-backed New Founding Fathers of America. She’s not on any side here; she’s just a data-driven gal unwittingly about to unleash holy hell on a sealed-off island.
On the ground, we meet our main players — Y’lan Noel, who makes a hunky and very charismatic drug kingpin; Lex Scott Davis, as his old girlfriend who has become a community activist; and Joivan Wade as her younger brother, torn between the lure of quick drug money and his sister’s unwavering morality. Rotimi Paul makes an absolutely frightening psycho and Steve Harris is an always welcome addition. (There’s also a cameo by Van Jones as a TV reporter skeptical of the purges.)
DeMonaco has handed over directorial duties this time to Gerard McMurray, who made his feature directorial debut with the Netflix hazing drama “Burning Sands.” It is perhaps fitting that McMurray, an African-American director, helps tell the story of an inner-city minority community under siege that overwhelmingly stars actors of color. McMurray has a deft touch juggling action sequences, humor and intimate dialogue.
The first purge actually starts off unevenly, with many Staten Islanders who have stayed (and who have pocketed $5,000 in the process) choosing to have a boozy block party rather than murder each other. The New Founding Fathers of America soon decide to goose the violence level with a familiar tactic and the film moves into action hero territory, with Noel turning into a John McClane-like hero, and our makeshift community banding together to fight an oppressive regime — very Yankee Doodle Dandy. The blood flows so much that in one sequence it splashes the camera itself.
The “Purge” films have never been very subtle and “The First Purge” is no different. At one point, the brave ragtag Staten Islanders are being systematically hunted by heavily armed white gunmen wearing KKK hoods or Nazi coats and masks that look like blackface and minstrel shows. (Oh, and big thanks to costume designer Elisabeth Vastola for reprising her work from “The Purge: Election Year” by creating some masks that will haunt my nightmares forever.)
But DeMonaco’s signature hammy scriptwriting also rears its head. The characters are barely one-dimensional and prone to doing stupid stuff, like wandering out alone during a night of mayhem. “We’re safe,” the sister says at one point. Her brother responds thoughtfully: “For now.” (They’re not.) Poor Tomei is a wonderful actress marooned. “What have I done?” she intones toward the end, having to use her eyes to convey the turmoil her dialogue cannot.
But there’s no denying DeMonaco’s ability to conceive of a film that seems ripped from the headlines. “The First Purge” is hardly sci-fi in the face of neo-Nazis really marching in U.S. streets, immigration policies that have been denounced as inhumane and a Congress awash in NRA donations.
One thing DeMonaco can’t do is avoid his own timeline. We know that the purges are still raging in 2039, so whatever happens in Staten Island can’t end them. That’s a truly depressing thought on this Independence Day holiday: There will be more blood in the streets, not less.
As the Purge begins, a cackling psychopath named Skeletor (Rotimi Paul), who has a shaved head, a crazed grin, a set of African tribal scars, and the popping eyes of a zombie, holds up a man at an ATM and goes nuts with his dagger. A drug kingpin named Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), who is cool, calm, and collected, has to fend off an attempted coup by one of his lieutenants, who has lined up a couple of ladies to seduce and purge the boss. The plan doesn’t work, and Dimitri winds up purging him.
It is, in other words (nudge, nudge), a typical night in the hood.
One of the semi-jokes of the “Purge” films, with their hooky set-ups, their mostly cruddy lighting and staging, and their “Clockwork Orange”-meets-Roger Corman graze-Z nihilism, is that they’re rooted in a preening sort of “sociology” that’s tuned into the zeitgeist but, at the same time, comes off as more than a little mindless.
That’s true of this prequel as well. It’s the first “Purge” film to be set in the inner city, and that allows it to play off the notion that the government is only too eager to trash the lives of African-Americans, in a way that echoes the social paranoia of the ‘70s and ‘80s, when the heroin and crack epidemics were believed by many to be the deliberate fallout of racist government policies — a way of narcotizing the underclass.
On Staten Island, where the action clusters around the Park Hill Towers housing projects, each of the Purge participants gets $5,000, with the price set to go up the more mayhem they commit. They wear video contact lenses that give them the look of iridescent-eyed aliens, and everything that happens is broadcast, with a kind of lip-smacking “Hunger Games” breathlessness, by the national news media. (Agencies)
But if there’s a message buried in there somewhere, one that’s designed to power a B-movie for the age of Black Lives Matter, “The First Purge” isn’t without its own whiff of exploitation.
It’s likely that the film’s Purge-in-the-hood concept had more than a little to do with the success that Blumhouse, the franchise’s key production company, enjoyed with “Get Out.” Yet if a “Purge” film built around the lives of African-Americans seems a totally good idea, and is more than likely to prove a commercial one, coming from Blumhouse it only highlights the difference between the two films. “Get Out” was a thriller with a devious texture, rooted in social and psychological experience. “The First Purge” is a slipshod dystopian pulp comic book rooted in gangbanger cliches. It’s a threadbare “Boyz N the Hood” meets “Lord of the Flies.”
The movie opens with one of those America-descending-into-social-anarchy montages that have been a cinematic staple since “World War Z.” Only now, of course, it feels more timely than ever, because it taps right into the hater nation we’ve become. Part of the dramatic promise of “The First Purge” is that it will show us how the original Purge boiled up out of the cauldron of a newly seething America. But no: From the start, the Purge is all planned, the whole thing designed as a government conspiracy. And, in fact, it barely even works. When the night is halfway over, the scientist who created it, Dr. May Updale (Marisa Tomei), and the sleazy NFFA chief of staff, Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh), observe that there isn’t enough purging going on to give their experiment the kicky publicity it needed. Something has gone wrong. Where is all the uncorked id? (Agencies)
By Mark Kennedy