What better viewing choice on the 4th of July than the latest instalment in the satirical horror series, one that goes back to the beginning and commemorates the very start of the decline of the land of the so-called free? “The First Purge” sets out to explain just how a society could come to adopt such a monstrous idea in the first place, a question which feels less and less difficult to answer with each passing day.
With the public’s confidence in the American state at an all-time low, a new fundamentalist party arises, the New Founding Fathers of America. The NFFA, having won the Presidency, set out to conduct an experiment: the suspension of all laws on Statten Island, a pilot Purge for the American people.
“The Purge” gave us a home invasion thriller set against the backdrop of a neat satirical conceit and the sequel continued to explore the philosophical underpinnings of the purge, this time combining it with an “Escape From New York”-esque survival challenge. By the time we reached “The Purge: Election Year”, there was a disturbing alignment between the real world and the fictional dystopia of the NFFA’s America.
It’s this last factor which presents “The First Purge” with its biggest challenge, one that it struggles to overcome. It’s difficult to be satirical when reality is nipping at your heels, threatening to overtake you. There’s nowhere for satire to go when nothing seems too absurd, too hyperbolic to happen in real life. So when “The First Purge” takes it shots directly against Trump, they feel tired and feeble. The franchise has screamed itself hoarse warning us of what could come and now all it’s got left is a croaky whisper.
Ironically, it improves markedly once it ditches the (by this point) futile satire and switches fully to “Die Hard”-in-the-projects. Y’lan Noel makes for a fine action hero as he single-handedly takes on the government stooges threatening the frightened residents of a tower block and there’s a nice irony in the dominant local drug dealer being the last remaining moral authority, illustrating just how low society has sunk. The rest of the cast are solid, especially Lex Scott Davis, Joivan Wade and Mugga as the group whose survival we’re rooting for. Rotimi Paul grabs the attention as the psychotic neighbourhood whacko ‘Skeletor’ but he’s a fig leaf for the film’s second weakness: the lack of a focus villain against which to rail. Patch Darragh, as White House Chief of Staff Arlo Sabian provides a kind of doughy, bureaucratic menace but he’s too remote and bland to be threatening and Marissa Tomei is miscast and wasted in a thanklessly underwritten role as the psychologist who ‘starts’ the whole purge. There are various hate groups and Nazi-fetishists peppered throughout the last hour of the movie but none get a chance to be much more than cannon fodder as the film serves up violence to fill the social commentary void.
If you’re looking for a violent action thriller, “The First Purge” is perfectly serviceable but if you’re looking for a tall glass of trenchant insight to wash down all the bloody mayhem, the real-life GOP have poisoned the well.