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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

The First Purge movie review: a ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ for #BlackLivesMatter

The First Purge green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
This shrewd sci-fi horror franchise is as sharp as ever as it reaches yet further down into the unpleasant flipside of the American myth. A rare prequel that doesn’t feel superfluous.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): big fan of this series
I’m “biast” (con): was a little worried the series was running out of steam
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, female coprotagonist
(learn more about this)

I was a little worried with the previous Purge movie, Election Year, the third in the series, that the concept might be running out of steam, and that perhaps we didn’t need a fourth. Now that latest installment — The First Purge — is here. Turns out, I needn’t have worried. This most shrewd of sci-fi horror franchises is as sharp as ever with its skewering of the particular American propensity for embracing violence as a means to an end. In fact, it reaches yet further down into the unpleasant flipside of the American myth for even more savage satire than it has given us before. As it looks back into its own timeline to events that are barely removed from us in future time, its dystopia becomes even more terrifyingly plausible. This is the rare prequel that doesn’t feel superfluous. The blanks it is filling in address some of the doubts about how its horrors could have come to pass without even having to stretch to connect them to our now.

It is two days before “the experiment” is about to begin. This “first Purge” is the brainchild of social scientist Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei: Spider-Man: Homecoming, Love the Coopers), overseen by political operative Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh: Sully, The Visit), a member of the staff at the White House now held by the Christian fundamentalist party the New Founding Fathers of America. Staten Island, the New York City borough, is to be sealed off for this initial 12-hour period during which all crime, including murder, will be legal. The idea, as we’ve learned in the previous films, is that what will in the near future become an annual event is intended as a “societal catharsis” for stressed-out Americans to release their rage and their anger in a way that is channeled and sanctioned, in order to keep the rest of the year quiet and peaceful.

Why do people wear masks when they Purge? Are they ashamed of what they’re doing even though it’s sanctioned?

Why do people wear masks when they Purge? Are they ashamed of what they’re doing even though it’s sanctioned?

But are Americans actually itching to let loose in this way? Nya (hugely charismatic Lex Scott Davis), who is leading the local anti-Purge protests, most definitely does not. (Oh, is a black woman heading up the resistance? Now that is plausible.) Her ex, the local drug kingpin Dmitri (electrifying newcomer Y’lan Noel), doesn’t want to, either: violence to him is not a game, not fun, but a method of exerting what he sees as necessary power and control (as it is, ahem, for the NFFA, too); he instructs his footsoldiers to just stay home during “the experiment,” lest rival gangs use it as an excuse to make a move on them. Even Updale and the NFFA believe that ordinary people need an incentive: they are paying Staten Island residents to remain for “the experiment” (those who want to leave may, though without payment, of course), and will pay more to those who “participate”… if they survive. But why do even the black and brown residents of the low-income housing project where Nya lives with her brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade) — people who might justifiably have the greatest grievances against American society, which is why Updale is even more narrowly focusing her “experiment” there — need to be bribed into engaging in something that allegedly they already should want to do?

Oh, is a black woman heading up the anti-Purge resistance? Of course she is.
tweet

Remarkably, and even more so than the previous movies, The First Purge is both cheeringly optimistic — about human nature, suggesting that most people truly do not want to hurt others, even if it’s “approved” — and cynical, about the manipulations of the powerful that turn us against one another for their own nefarious purposes. As the series has done to great effect throughout, this latest installment obliquely examines the difference between what is legal and what is moral, and the gap where they don’t overlap. But unlike the earlier movies, The First Purge exclusively centers people of color — the only white people here are villains — and roots our sympathies firmly with them as the systematic and institutional violent oppression they are subjected to in our real world is here stripped of all pretense of being perpetrated by “accident” or by “bad apples.” Here we witness powerful white people watching gleefully — for Staten Island is under total surveillance by CCTV and drones, “the experiment” being broadcast to the world — as brown and black are murdered at their behest. Suddenly, this series has become a nightmare on the scale of The Handmaid’s Tale about racism rather than sexism. (Series creator James DeMonaco, who is white, here hands over the director’s chair to Gerard McMurray, who is black, and whose track record includes producing Fruitvale Station, a vital recent film on the African-American experience. DeMonaco returns as screenwriter.)

This is a much more pointed and much more enormously shame-on-America focus than I had suggested when I mentioned Handmaid in my review of the first movie. And it’s possible now, today, with this movie, only because the real world has moved closer to the world of The Purge… and in only a few years. (The first movie debuted just in 2013!) The not-at-all indirect reference to the current President of the United States here may be as over-the-top and on-the-nose as the barely-even-a-metaphor of The First Purge, but it’s absolutely necessary when a significant portion of the US population refuses to acknowledge how frighteningly close what we see here is.


see also:
The Purge review: good, decent, patriotic violence
The Purge: Anarchy movie review: standing up to power and privilege
The Purge: Election Year movie review: soylent green is Donald Trump!


Click here for my ranking of this and 2018’s other theatrical releases.


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The First Purge (2018) | directed by Gerard McMurray
US/Can release: Jul 04 2018
UK/Ire release: Jul 04 2018

MPAA: rated R for strong disturbing violence throughout, pervasive language, some sexuality and drug use
BBFC: rated 15 (strong bloody violence, threat, language, drug misuse)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • MaryAnn Keyser

    I haven’t seen any of these movies yet, but your review of this one makes me think I should. If I started with this one would it be easy to follow?

  • I think it would be fine to start with this one.

  • LaSargenta

    My impression is they all stand on their own.

  • susmart3

    This may be the first tie a review has influenced me to see a movie I would never have considered seeing.

  • Bluejay

    MaryAnn has done that for me quite a few times. I’m sure she’ll convince you to see more. :-)

  • Same with me. I’ve seen all sorts of under the radar type movies that I never would have without her reviews. Or even movies I would not norm ally be interested in.

    Although when she goes against the grain(52% on RT) like with this review I admit to questioning it and reading other reviewers as well.
    I’ve seen only one Purge movie and it made me massively uncomfortable. Scary because we all know there at least a few psychos out there that would actually enjoy it for real.

  • Tonio Kruger

    A ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ for #BlackLivesMatter

    Well, I called the first Purge movie Straw Dogs in Suburbia so it’s just as well I’m probably going to give this movie a pass though I should admire the chutzpah it takes to use a word normally associated with left-wing dictatorships to describe an institution brought about by the stealth version of a right-wing dictatorship.

  • Tonio Kruger

    I too have seen a lot of good movies I would have normally overlooked if not for MaryAnn. However, the Purge movies are not among them.

    Given my often cynical nature and fondness for B-movies, I should like these movies and if they had come out when I was way younger, I might have. Then again I have seen other movies go over the same territory much better. Plus, as I mentioned on another thread, I find the attitude behind the films to be more than a little self-congratulatory.

    I saw the first one in a second-run theatre, the second on a relative’s DVR, the third I recorded but never watched…

    Hey, I’m seeing a pattern here…

  • Tell your friends. :-)

  • it made me massively uncomfortable

    I would hope so. That’s the point.

  • Then again I have seen other movies go over the same territory much better.

    Can you name a few? I’d like to check them out.

  • a word normally associated with left-wing dictatorships

    Translation, please?

    Also please name a single “left-wing dictatorship.”

  • Tonio Kruger

    The former Soviet Union, which was quite notorious in the 1930s for its purges.

  • Tonio Kruger

    The original Deathrace 2000, for example, in which the contestants competed to run over the most people.

    The Running Man, in which the protagonist was part of a game show in which he was the quarry and the other contestants the hunters.(To be fair, I liked the book much better than the movie, so much so I was tempted to leave it off the list.)

    George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead had a brief scene in which rural residents were treating an expedition to kill zombies as the equivalent of a hunting party.

    For that matter, I could mention the various versions of The Most Dangerous Game including the original 1930s version with Fay Wray. However, I’d stay away from the Naked Terror movies which can be basically described as “The Most Dangerous Game with naked women.”

  • Oh my goodness. No. Just no. The Soviet Union was not left-wing, and the usage of “purge” in this series is not remotely related to what the USSR meant by it.

  • These are all very different from the *Purge* series. VERY different.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Seriously? One of the most powerful Communist regimes of the 20th century was not left-wing? Please explain your logic.

    And yes, the series does use “purge” in a different sense than the USSR did but I still find it odd that the screenwriter chose to use that term instead of one that has more historically neutral implications.

  • Tonio Kruger

    I must be at the age where almost everything I see reminds me of something else I’ve seen.

  • Danielm80

    I have a theory that Once and Titanic are the same movie. They’re both about doomed love affairs, they both feature great Irish music, and each of them ends with a big, romantic gesture that seems kind of stupid if you think about it for more than a minute.

    But if someone asked me whether the two movies belong in the same genre, I’d have to say no. Perhaps you’re confusing a genre classification with a Rorschach test.

  • Seriously? One of the most powerful Communist regimes of the 20th century was not left-wing?

    Seriously. Fascism is not “left-wing.” Totalitarianism is not “left-wing.” Might as well say that Nazi Germany was socialist.

    The quickest, most cursory of Googles will show that “the Soviet Union was not left-wing” is far from a controversial statement the logic of which I must justify.

    I still find it odd that the screenwriter chose to use that term instead of one that has more historically neutral implications.

    I find it odd that this is a sticking point for you. I think you are overestimating the baggage that comes with the word “purge.” If anything, in mainstream Western culture, “purge” is most closely associated, if with anything at all, wth eating disorders.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Seriously. Fascism is not “left-wing.” Totalitarianism is not “left-wing.” Might as well say that Nazi Germany was socialist.

    I guess it’s a good thing I’m not saying that last part.

    That said, I doubt if we’d be having this conversation if I used the words “right-wing dictatorship” to describe Franco’s Spain or Mussolini’s Italy.

    And yes, I’ve read some of the “yes, the USSR is a leftist dictatorship but” comments on the Quora site and I found out a lot of interesting information but nothing that contradicts my original point.

    Then again my mother is a Polish-American Reagan Democrat who once lit candles on behalf of the Polish Solidarity Movement so I’m obviously a tad biast on that issue.

    I find it odd that this is a sticking point for you. I think you are overestimating the baggage that comes with the word “purge.” If anything, in mainstream Western culture, “purge” is most closely associated, if with anything at all, wth eating disorders.

    Fair enough.

    Though, given the fact that the original title of the first movie was Vigilandia — which makes it sound like a Frida Kahlo painting — I can’t help but be curious about why they changed it.

    Then again it’s become obvious over the years that I’m OCD about a lot of subjects including this one.

  • Bluejay

    I doubt if we’d be having this conversation if I used the words “right-wing dictatorship” to describe Franco’s Spain or Mussolini’s Italy.

    Given that the right inherently favors hierarchy and the military and “law and order” more than the left, I’d say it’s not surprising that right-wing dictatorships aren’t as much of a contradiction in terms as hypothetical left-wing ones.

    Though, given the fact that the original title of the first movie was Vigilandia — which makes it sound like a Frida Kahlo painting — I can’t help but be curious about why they changed it.

    Really? It seems obvious on its face that The Purge is a better title — more active, gripping, threatening, and suggestive of what happens in the movie. Vigilandia sounds like it could be a spinoff of Portlandia.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Given that the right inherently favors hierarchy and the military and “law and order” more than the left, I’d say it’s not surprising that right-wing dictatorships aren’t as much of a contradiction in terms as hypothetical left-wing ones.

    You use the word “hypothetical” as if such places don’t exist.

    I could understand your skepticism if I was referring to Putin’s Russia or Czarist Russia but in a world filled with the likes of Cuba, North Korea and the PRC, it seems at best silly to consider such places “hypothetical.” And arguing that such places are really “right-wing” sounds a bit Orwellian.

    Perhaps I should just call them dictatorships.

    Really? It seems obvious on its face that The Purge is a better title — more active, gripping, threatening, and suggestive of what happens in the movie. Vigilandia sounds like it could be a spinoff of Portlandia.

    True.

  • Bluejay

    You use the word “hypothetical” as if such places don’t exist.

    That IS what you and MaryAnn are debating, no? As she has established that fascism and totalitarianism are not left-wing, I’m sure she awaits other examples. :-)

  • Vigilandia

    It doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, does it?

  • Tonio Kruger

    I can think of many better titles in Spanish but then I can think of many Anglo-Saxon words that grate on my ears much more.

    But now we’re in YMMV territory so I’ll concede on this point.

  • Tonio Kruger

    She established that my description of the USSR was considered controversial on the internet. I’m not sure she proved much more else.

    Then again how would you describe Cuba? Or North Korea? Or the PRC? I know you and MaryAnn must be sincerely tempted to invoke the John Scalzi Law at this point but I really would like to know your answer.

    But if you choose otherwise? No worries. I live in a city with more than a few refugees from Communist countries and I could always try to ask one of them…

  • Bluejay

    Then again how would you describe Cuba? Or North Korea? Or the PRC?

    Regarding Cuba, I find this op-ed persuasive. Some relevant passages:

    Power in Cuba is held by two families with the same surname: Castro. Around them is a select military cadre. Together they constitute a permanent elite wielding power. Below them is a bureaucracy that serves only to “manage” their interests, not to make key decisions that benefit the country. […] Cuba’s real owners exercise their privileges as if the island were a private company registered under the trade name “Cuban Revolution.” They attach to this corporate appellation a series of qualifiers — “progressive,” “leftist,” “anti-capitalist” and others — which only serve to distract from reality.

    And if Cuba pays lip-service to “the revolution” while really being run by the equivalent of the Corleone family, surely the same can be said of North Korea. In fact, “the government has formally replaced all references to Marxism-Leninism in its constitution with the locally developed concept of Juche, or self-reliance. In recent years, there has been great emphasis on the Songun or ‘military-first’ philosophy. All references to communism were removed from the North Korean constitution in 2009.” (See also this.)

    As for China, it may have the reputation of socialism, but a closer look reveals that impression to be debatable; see a thorough argument here. It’s also interesting that a supposedly leftist government would crush labor unions, arrest labor activists for agitating for fairer wages, and generally see labor disputes as a threat to law and order. The China Labour Bulletin also finds fault with China’s social security system:

    …as the economy developed and liberalized in the 1990s and 2000s, both the state and social structures that had supported workers in their old age, ill-health and during times of economic hardship gradually vanished, leaving an huge vacuum to fill. The Chinese government sought to create a new social security system based on individual employment contracts that would make employers, rather than the state, primarily responsible for contributions to pensions, unemployment, medical, work-related injury and maternity insurance.

    And it concludes:

    After China embarked on its much vaunted economic reform and development program, the government gradually abdicated its authority in labour relations to business interests. As the private sector expanded, employers could unilaterally and arbitrarily determine the pay and working conditions of their employees, keeping wages low and benefits largely non-existent.

    You know — socialism! :-)

    I’ll concede that some authoritarian governments may SAY they’re left-wing. But what they SAY and what they ARE may be two different things entirely.

    Religious believers seem to be fine with saying that a self-proclaimed believer who does heinous things in the name of his faith doesn’t represent the entire religion itself, and shouldn’t be used to justify a blanket condemnation of religion. Perhaps the same courtesy could be extended to political and economic philosophies.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Touche.

    I’ll try to remember that for future reference.

    Though I find ironic that Fidel and Raul Castro seem to have more in common with the Somoza family of Nicaragua than I would have thought possible.

    Thank you for the reply.

  • I can think of many better titles in Spanish

    But this is not a Spanish-language movie.

  • Now you’re suggesting that Cuba and North Korea are left-wing?!

  • Tonio Kruger

    True.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Bluejay has already corrected me on that point.

    Though in view of those countries’ histories, “left-wing” is hardly the worst thing I could have called them.

  • Bluejay

    in view of those countries’ histories, “left-wing” is hardly the worst thing I could have called them.

    That’s like saying “In view of ISIS and the Taliban’s histories, ‘Christian’ is hardly the worst thing I could have called them.”

    The point is that they aren’t. :-)

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