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Anarchy in the US: The First Purge, a film of the Trump era

Trish Lee

Charlie Masters


01635 886663

First Purge

The First Purge (15)
Running time 1hr 38min
Rating: **

WHEREAS the futuristic setting of the first Purge movie provided an otherwise run-of-the-mill slasher film a distinctive dystopian foil, the franchise it subsequently spawned has made some hackneyed turns into social commentary. Nowadays, the series is, for all intents and purposes, a paint-by-numbers political satire with macabre horror elements. This is especially apparent in the case of this prequel, which purports to depict the origins of the ultra-violent ritual that binds the series together – featuring nods to Charlottesville, US racial tensions and the Trump presidency, it’s a vehicle tailor-made to provoke and troll.

Bizarrely, then, the viewing experience feels a lot more like an exercise in desensitisation than pedagogy, from the film’s borderline fetishisation of guns to its employment of blatant political motifs in various scenes of murder and mayhem. In thematic terms, The First Purge doesn’t so much leave a foul taste in the mouth as an oddly ambivalent one, veering wildly as it does between Huxley-esque moral messaging and quasi-fascistic sublimation.

The series’ core mythology remains troubling as ever. After America collapses into penury and addiction, the ruling class designates an annual ‘holiday’ on which all crime (up to murder) will be legal, with the (sociologically illiterate) rationale that this will restrain the plebs’ violent ‘tendencies’ for the rest of the year. In the second film, it was revealed that this ‘Purge’ had, in fact, produced a rather idyllic society, with crime virtually non-existent and unemployment at an all-time low; thankfully, this new entry offers a decidedly more cynical take on the subject matter, portraying – as per the title – the pilot Purge scheme in Staten Island. The gubmint (embodied by Marisa Tomei’s ‘Architect’, a portrait of bourgeois idealism gone horribly wrong) dumps the Purge on the neighbourhood in the hope its impoverished denizens will be enticed to kill one-another by financial incentives; instead, the initiative of local activist Nya (Lex Scott Davis) sees them reject the enterprise entirely. Faced with a PR firestorm, the authorities dispatch hired killers to the (mostly ethnic) area, charmingly kitted out in white supremacist attire…

There’s a paradoxical quality about The First Purge. While this is the first film in the series to eschew white protagonists – the cast’s diversity is genuine and admirable – its handling of its tetchy themes is frequently clumsy, if not downright offensive. A key sequence sees a Charleston-style church shooting; the actual Klan make an appearance. Some of the action is well-crafted (including an epic showdown in an apartment block featuring Y’Lan Noel’s heroic drug lord), yet a lot of this stuff goes beyond the pale – while there’s a place for self-ironic inflammation (have you seen who’s in the White House?), this is often just nakedly exploitative. Later attempts at comedy struggle to get a word in against an irredeemable hellscape of chaos and carnage. It’s aesthetically stylish, but is by far the hardest of the Purge films to swallow on almost every level. The initial movies dealt with how a certain moneyed subset of Westerners strive to keep the have-nots at bay – geographically, socially, politically. The First Purge, by contrast, tortures itself over how the have-nots might ever escape their imprisonment – and offers pitifully little in the way of answers.

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