The First Purge review – a brave exploratory film, if a little confused


Cast: Y’lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis, Marisa Tomei, Joivan Wade, Steve Harris. Directed by: Gerard McMurray.

Subtlety has never been The Purge franchise’s strongest suit. After all, it’s a series that is playing its political message big for the dummies at the back of the cinema. This is not a Get Out level horror-commentary, this is no George A Romero satirical horror, but it’s not a bad thing.

The Purge franchise, the brainchild of writer-director James DeMonaco, revolves around a very basic idea: a new political movement called The New Founding Father’s of America (NFFA) have legalised all crime – with an annoying emphasis on murder – for one night, to soothe the homicidal needs of the society at large. Each film takes this night long premise and melds it with a different genre.


The Purge followed affluent white middle-class family the Sandins (Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey headed) as they lived through a Straw Dogs style home invasion. The Purge: Anarchy followed revenge driven Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) as he attempts an Escape from New York style mission across the city, with a group of desperate civilians (Carmen Ejogo, Zach Gilford, Kiele Sanchez, Zoe Soul, Justina Machado). While The Purge: Election Year saw Barnes return, this time as head of security for maverick presidential candidate Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) as they try to survive the night with help from Mykelti Williamson, Joseph Julian Soria and Betty Gabriel.

Now, DeMonaco leaves directing duties but stays as writer-producer, as Fruitvale Station producer Gerard McMurray comes in the helm the origin of Purge night. The story follows the people that live on Statten Island as Marisa Tomei’s social experiment takes its first steps.

McMurray is a stylish director and wastes no time setting up the basic plot strands and story elements. We meet the bad white people (conflicted Tomei, evil political guy Patch Darragh), we meet the heroic characters – Y’Lan Noel’s noble drug lord, activist Lex Scott Davis and her conflicted brother Joivan Wade, loud mouth local Mugga and mother-daughter duo Luna Lauren Velez and Kristen Solis. We are also introduced to over the top villain Rotimi Paul.


McMurray does his best with a sometimes over-the-top script that attempts to be both a political commentary and crowd-pleasing horror-action movie. It doesn’t work at times, especially when certain political potshots make little sense – Darragh looks like a fat David Cameron, the main army villain is dressed like a death camp supervisor, looks like Ronald Reagan, but sounds like Harrison Ford, and there’s the same single level minded villainy that only really worked once. While the first films look at how Ivy League trust fund kids could be the worst, and envious middle-class people were capable of evil, the usual “I can do it, so I will do it” comes to the fore here. There’s no strong lambasting of the social climbing minorities that turn their backs on the world. No stand-in for Kanye West that would make society work.

That, and the film references are a little confused. The beginning of the film features the likes of Steve Harris, Derek Basco and D.K. Bowser as three figures sitting on deck chairs commenting on the action as if it were Do The Right Thing, but by the end of the film this turns into Noel stripping to a vest and turning into ‘Attack the Last Die Hard Block on the Left’.

Even so, the film works best with its characters and the plight of surviving the night. In that respect, Y’Lan Noel keeps us on side as the tough but moralistic kingpin. The films have always asked questions, and offered some but not all the answers, and while Davis and Wade fall into needing saving they also offer great performances. Plus, it helps that the film is brave enough not to give us a white protagonist, even if the villains are so over the top they are hard to buy.

Perhaps the film’s best innovation is realising there are more crimes than just murder. Here we see a lot of looting, people getting drunk and having street parties, and one scene of two people having sex in public. The film does what it does best, which is to explore the idea that really, what people want to do when they’re not faced with consequences is murder and rape, with a laugh at the line “mother fucking pussy grabber”. Here we see that subtlety is overrated, and that in these fake news times, trying to offer something that people can’t ignore might not be the worst thing in the world.

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