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It’s rare to see a film so painfully at war with itself as The First Purge. I hadn’t seen an entry in the franchise since the original, which seemed utterly unconcerned with the obvious political implications of its premise. Since then, it seems the series has steadily stumbled into deeper engagement with those undertones. Each entry has gotten a little more interested in politics. The last one was subtitled “Election Year.” This one announced itself with a poster featuring a red baseball cap. It’s hard to blame them for the bluntness of this approach. The time for subtext in American political art is over. The only question was whether or not the franchise’s creators had the capability to tell these stories in a nuanced and intelligent way.
The answer, it turns out: Not really! But you have to admire its intentions. The First Purge is a film that so badly wants to provide insightful social commentary. The way it rewrites the original film’s premise is quite clever. The Purge, an annual event where all crime is legal for twelve hours, was apparently conceived of as a way of getting residents of low-income neighborhoods to kill each other off, a free pass for the government (here run by a political party called the New Founding Fathers) to continue ignoring their desperation. The film depicts a test run of the Purge, confined to Staten Island, where residents are being paid thousands of dollars to stay on the island for the night and even more to “participate.” The people who live there are largely poor and non-white, and most of them accept simply because they need the money. It’s the only real government assistance they have, and it comes at the price of their lives.
Later in the film, when it seems that only non-violent crime is being committed and people aren’t engaging, the government sends in private militia groups and armed KKK members to murder residents. Their hope is that this will provoke more people to violence, thus providing statistical proof of engagement with the Purge. It’s a really interesting spin on a premise which was originally used as nothing more than an excuse to depict widespread violence and terror. The scientist who conceived of the Purge says in one scene, “This socioeconomic group is not reacting the way I predicted.” That is to say, they aren’t instantly devolving into violence and mayhem. The filmmakers make it very clear that the Purge as a concept is infected at the root with racism.
It’s obvious that they here seriously reckoned with the implications of the concept, and that they came to the right conclusions. The psychological excuse for the Purge was always nonsense. Here, that fact is made part of the fabric of the story. The Purge is depicted as nothing more than a government tool to annihilate poor people and people of color. It’s a genuinely provocative idea. At one point, the man in charge of observing the Purge insists that this is the best option to combat America’s overpopulation and increasing national debt. “We exhausted every possibility,” he says. No one asks if he considered stretching out his hand to help, rather than hurt. But no one needs to.
The problem is that The First Purge is beholden to the structure of its predecessors. It has to be a bad Blumhouse horror movie. The protagonists have to be chased around by people wearing masks and wielding knives. There’s a crazy scary guy named (no joke) Skeletor who stalks one of the main characters for a while. It’s not just that it denigrates the sincere social commentary to include such absurd, idiotic, lame horror movie tropes. It’s that the horror elements are so halfheartedly included as to feel obligatory. And this should be a horror movie! It’s a horrifying premise! Horror is capable of telling this story the way it needs to be told. But rather than enriching the film’s text, those elements repeatedly make it a drag to sit through. The First Purge is such a disappointing film. It comes so close to realizing a truly compelling vision. But it doesn’t come close enough.