What are The Purge movies supposed to be? Are they horror movies, in which we’re given a ludicrous set-up (all crime is legal! Mayhem reigns!) so we can enjoy ideally no more than 90 minutes of gore and anarchy? Or are these movies social commentary — an attempt, a la Blumhouse’s most critically successful venture to date, Get Out, to illuminate cultural truths through the shared nonverbal language of jump-scares and goosebumps? In the Purge franchise’s own mind, one suspects these movies are both. Unfortunately, The First Purge succeeds at accomplishing neither.
In The First Purge (a movie whose title already sets up a miserable Abbott and Costello routine, for it’s the fourth film in the franchise), the United States government — run by a new neo-fascist political party — decides to implement an experiment on Staten Island: for 12 hours, all crime will be legal. Citizens will be paid $5,000 if they decide to participate in the experiment by remaining on the island, and those participants will be fit with neon-glowing camera contact lenses so their violent debauchery can be broadcast to the public. The logic here is shaky at best (yes, I know, I know, I did just write the word “logic” in a review of The First Purge) because the goal seems to be to broadcast as much gory violence as possible to a still-free press — these fascists work slow, it turns out — but wouldn’t that turn off the vast majority of the public? If this is the First Purge, and it’s not yet something the modern-day populace is acclimated to, one imagines mass-broadcasted footage of a drug addict slashing a stranger with a fist of hypodermic needles (the first “purge” of the night) would cause most rational-minded people to recoil and think, “hmm, perhaps this isn’t the best embodiment of our nation.”
The experiment, as it’s called, was engineered by a miserable-looking Marisa Tomei in a terrible blonde wig, dressed as if she’s planning on attending an uptown art gallery opening when all of this murdering is over. We’re made to believe this character is a true believer in the moral righteousness of the Purge, a woman whose sense of right and wrong permits encouraging free-wheeling killing but who draws the line at the government fudging the numbers to make the trial look better. (Equally incorrect casting: the monotone, middle-aged accountant-looking guy who was apparently elected president. Aren’t fascists supposed to be charismatic?)
For the first two-thirds or so of the movie, the scares are lacking. As our character archetypes — I mean, protagonists: Nya (Lex Scott Davis), her little brother (Joivan Wade), her heroic ex-boyfriend (Y’lan Noel) — wander wide-eyed through near-abandoned streets, it feels more like an overpriced haunted house than anything: out pops a guy in a scary mask waving a machete! Out pops a lunatic wearing a raincoat who sprays you with water! Oh no, hands grabbing at your ankles! These moments are so discrete and harmless you expect our heroes to collect a souvenir photo when all of it is over.
The premise of a “Purge” — the helplessness and anarchy of it — is so promising, it’s no wonder why they keep making these movies and why people (your reviewer among them) keep paying money to see them, expecting guilt-free, bloody mayhem, a symbolic two-hour Purge from the obligations of responsible consumerism.
Why then, does this film feel so cardboard? In part, no doubt, because of its self-seriousness (the moments of humor they do attempt to inject are awkward and misplaced) but also maybe because law-enforcement is never a considerable factor in horror movies, and so removing it, while fun in premise, doesn’t do much as a matter of actual practice. All horror movies find a way to nullify the comfort of an active and capable police force (“My phone is dead!” or “This cabin is so far away, police won’t be here for hours!”) until the final moments. “No police to help” is the precondition for good horror, but no more.
And early on, The First Purge teaches us that police aren’t a helpful factor in the lives of our characters: pre-Purge, a junkie slices a young drug-dealer in the face with a razor blade in his mouth. That same junkie is the one who goes on to hypodermic needle-stab someone else, but obviously he’s not someone who was patiently waiting for crime to be legal to really let loose: he already sliced our hero in the face! Where the Purge movies could have been about the slow — and then terrifyingly rapid — dismissal of morality and social norms, like High-Rise, it chooses instead to skate through those haunted house scares and clunky symbolism.
By the final third of this movie though, I’m not sure if you can call it symbolism at all, when it’s just the thing itself and not a representation of it: When people haven’t been murdering enough, the fascist government sends in mercenary racists to systemically gun people down. In a clear echo of the 2015 shooting in Charleston, neo-Nazis ride motorcycles away from a church whose congregants were slaughtered. The KKK glide in bloody sheets through the sheets. The leader of the unit assigned to murdering everyone in the protagonist’s apartment building is dressed like an SS officer, with his goons in minstrel black-face masks. (Were these costumes provided to these last-minute Purge missionaries or did they select people who already had them?)
These images are horrifying, but if 2018 has taught us anything, it’s that, even more horrifying, in the real world, the villains don’t wear bloody KKK hoods or twirling metaphorical moustaches. Evil is petty and banal. Racists love to begin their sentences with “I’m not a racist, but.” Neo-Nazis balk at the comparison to Nazis, and use the accusation as fuel to prove how outlandish and off base their enemies are. How much less terrifying the world would be then, if they were all wearing SS uniforms, and their power dissolved at sunrise.
At one point, as an organized militia armed with machine guns begin their march into the heroes’ apartment building to murder everyone inside, a neighbor earnestly pulls Nya aside and says she’s worried about the state of the country. A reminder: armed gunmen in Nazi costume are currently storming up her stairwell to remorselessly kill them. Hey lady, now’s not the time for an exaggerated wink to the audience. I promise, just dealing with The Purge would be interesting enough. C+