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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.

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.

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