THE PURGE Franchise Proves It Has Its Fingers On The Pulse Of American Social Politics
One of the greatest things about horror movies is that, upon putting one on, you can almost always track what year it was made without even looking it up; from the fashion and locations to the vocabulary and even character names, many of the films are perfect time capsule products of their creation. While Blumhouse’s The Purge franchise may arguably be their most financially-successful franchise to date, however, it serves much more of a purpose than the other slash-and-run genre flicks vying for the title. The latest installment, The First Purge, drives home more than ever what a product of their environment these films are, and how a horror film can make an effective, if unsubtle, social commentary on the state of the world around us.
In 2018, conscious viewers who consider themselves ‘woke’ are hard-pressed to find horror films that don’t play into the same archetypes we’ve seen a thousand times before. This is perhaps one of The Purge’s strongest points; other than the first film, which starred Lena Headey and Ethan Hawke, there are a VERY small margin of ‘big name’ actors and only a handful of white characters who are actually ‘good’ in the series. This is the only franchise I can think of which not only highlights relatively unknown or undiscovered POC actors but features them in strong leading roles with plenty of screen time. The series doesn’t feature gratuitous nudity or even your stereotypical ‘sitting around getting high’ sequences customary in these types of films. We rarely see on-screen love stories and the ‘final girl’ trope doesn’t really exist here. Instead, this franchise chooses to focus on topical issues; each film is a distinct product of the year it was created. The first film focuses on the disparity between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’; our protagonists are a very wealthy white family, and while they seem faultless enough, they’re also generally unlikeable. The kids in particular are weird, privileged, and make stupid choices throughout the film that result in disastrous consequences. The entitlement of the Purgers on the family’s doorstep, however, is the most telling; these are college-aged kids in prep school uniforms, charming, suave, with teeth made perfect from orthodontic work and expensive technology and vehicles. These are the American Dream personified. They try to ply the family to cooperate by pitting them in an ‘us versus them’ mentality against the African-American man who is hiding in the house; they even refer to him in terms that imply that he’s less than human, undeserving of life because he’s Other from them. He is a threat to their rights, and by harboring and protecting him, the family is standing between the American Dream and their government-given privilege. This is a recurring theme through the Purge, and in this newest installment it’s revealed to be the origin of the social experiment in the first place. It’s a head-on, direct tackling of the phrase which everyone knows is a reality but no one will vocalize for fear of being reprimanded; there are those in power who believe that the POC and lower-income citizens of this country are unworthy of life, and the privileged should not be ‘dragged down’ by their existence.
In The First Purge, Marisa Tomei portrays a behavioral psychiatrist who has conducted extensive research on the mounting tension and violence breeding in America, particularly in densely-populated urban areas. She has determined through her studies that people need to break down their inhibitions and release all of that anger and fear and unrest in one night of liberation, and this will be a ‘cleansing’ that will allow them to be more productive and well-adjusted citizens the rest of the year. This highly-controversial idea is fully backed by a new political party known as The New Founding Fathers of America, who are financed primarily by the NRA. The NFFA targets Staten Island as ground zero for their experiment; for one twelve-hour stretch, they will allow any and all crime on the island to be legal without any repercussion or consequence. They set up drones and live feeds all over the city and watch from their ivory tower, high off the ground and safe. The NFFA offers a large financial incentive to anyone who stays on the island during the Purge and doesn’t evacuate; they offer further compensation, on a sliding scale, for those who participate actively. Of course, we quickly learn what we already know if we’ve seen the other three films in the series; this is a means to cull the ‘undesirable’ citizens who are ‘drains on society’. There is a clear class war theme where the lower-income citizens are being targeted to blame for high unemployment rates, plummeting stock markets and real estate bubbles bursting, and low wages. The NFFA, much like Hitler’s regime, come out and say it without saying it; those who die will thin the herd, and there will be more resources, more benefits and opportunities, for those who survive. In the case of the first Staten Island contained experiment, they focus their efforts on a set of housing projects run by a slumlord, occupied primarily by the poor POC of the city. They fully anticipate that, given free reign and no consequences, with the added benefit of a paycheck for participating, the citizens will immediately act like animals upon hearing the sound of the siren signaling the start of the Purge. Tomei’s character explains that she expected a wildly high level of participation early in the twelve-hour shift, with it tapering off as people’s enthusiasm for the idea wore down. However, the opposite proves to be true; when given free reign, the low-income citizens don’t regress into slobbering, homicidal, savage beasts. They do not run through the streets raping and murdering at will. There is some minor vandalism but for the most part, the citizens are content to either lock themselves away with loved ones at home or their beloved church, or they have block parties of public drinking and carousing to celebrate the money they’re receiving for staying, which will change many of their lives and allow them to better themselves.
The main characters in The First Purge are far from one-dimensional; we are introduced to Isaiah, a young teenager tired of scraping and hustling to make ends meet, who decides to join a network of local drug dealers run by his sister Nya’s kingpin ex-boyfriend Dmitri. He encounters a highly-unstable and violent crackhead who embarrasses him on his first transaction, leading to him being humiliated and angry and deciding that he’ll use the Purge as an excuse to rid their neighborhood of this dangerous addict. Isaiah is a great example on-screen of a good character pushed by his environment into being persuaded to do bad things, though it’s clear from the beginning that he’s in over his head and wildly overestimated his own mettle when it comes to murder; as Dmitri says, “these wannabe thugs don’t know, murder ain’t that simple. You gotta have a really damaged heart to pull it off. They don’t.” Equally well-rounded is Nya, a young orphaned woman from the projects who is striving to make her community a better place. She had some misspent youth, including dating Dmitri, but she is focused solely on raising her brother and providing some positivity and encouragement to her downtrodden fellow citizens. She’s active in her church and in trying to improve the slums she’s forced to live in, and she has no problem leading a protest about the Purge and trying to convince people not to take the government’s blood money because they are obviously pawns in the rich’s game. Our final lead is Dmitri himself, a drug lord who rules the Island with an iron fist but a noble heart. He tells Nya that he ‘knows no other way’, a sentiment echoed off-screen by many in illegal ways of life, but he sees his fellow gang members as family and he is fiercely protective and paternal to them as they pledge their loyalty and unwavering devotion to him in return.
In a nice surprise, Dmitri informs his gang that they are forbidden to participate in the Purge; they will not be evacuating, as it would make them seem weak, but they will not be going out to reap the mayhem of the night. Dmitri proves himself time and time again through the film to have a good heart, though he is obviously an anti-hero; he runs a massive drug ring, is involved with prostitution, and murders many people throughout the night, though it could be argued that all of his murders are necessary for his continued survival or the protection of his loved ones. He’s a ruthless, strong leader who will not allow the empire he’s built to be compromised, but he also has strong bonds with family and community. And in the end, he risks it all to save the people that matter the most to him.
All of these performances are beautifully wrought, far better acting than would normally be warranted by a film of this stripe; in truth, the worst performance was silver screen veteran Tomei, who comes off as wooden and unconvincing. There’s no way this woman would have the charisma to convince a nation to allow them to murder their own citizens. Disappointing on her end, but I also enjoy the fact that the white people, including the ‘name’ actor, didn’t steal the show from the relatively-unknown but highly talented POC cast. The movie is carried solely on their shoulders and they pull it off with so much heart that you find yourself invested not only in their plight but their success. In horror movies, we typically cheer when the sleazy bimbo takes a machete to the head or the pompous jock gets an arrow through the chest; The Purge series is the only one I can think of where you don’t want people to die. You want them to win.
And some of them do.
The First Purge isn’t an incredible film; in fact, if I was rating it solely on its own merit, it would be a firm C+, and I probably won’t rewatch it unless I’m marathoning the franchise. It didn’t bring anything new to the table that wasn’t already revealed in the other installments, and there is actually so little gore (and what there is is almost exclusively CGI bullet-holes and blood) that it can hardly be counted as a horror film; it truly reads more like The Raid: Redemption when Dmitri storms the project housing complex to save his loved ones. The film lacks the stunning imagery and memorable visuals the other installments provided; their one art-department nod to ‘iconic’ in this is glowing contact lenses of varying colors which record the Purge in real-time for news outlets; there are no stylized masks, no cosplay-worthy costumes to recreate, no great set-up scenes of beautifully-lit murder (like the alleyway guillotine scene in Election Year). These films are surprisingly non-violent given the premise and the production house involved; usually you’ll get a knife stab, or a cut-away at the moment of impact (such as the family slaying the father in Anarchy) or you see the aftermath of already bloodied corpses. The First Purge has a lot of digital bullet wounds and CGI bloodspray that’s much too red, but not much else in the way of kills. Potential grue (such as the crackhead Skeletor strapping a glove made of dirty needles to his hand) never pay off on-screen, disappointingly.
One particular red herring in the final showdown never leads anywhere, leaving the audience a little confused and misled. The wealthy NFFA people and military high-ups in the film are written as to be completely mustache-twirling mwah-ha-ha evil entities, and there are direct hits, including a part where Nya calls someone a ‘pussy-grabbing motherfucker’… and we know who that is about, of course. Just like watching The Purge: Election Year we knew that was about Bernie Sanders, and The Purge: Anarchy was clearly about the escalation and frequency of racial tension and rioting in the urban areas of America. As with every installment, the political commentary and writing is clumsy and heavy-handed where a subtle touch might be more effective, but it still works. It’s the same technique Romero used in his seminal zombie films to dissect pop culture and social climates using the undead as metaphor. We see so much of 2018 America in this film that it could easily be a segment on the news; it’s the kind of horror/sci-fi that borders dangerously close to reality, a dystopian future that’s knocking at our actual doors. With Trump blaming immigrants and lower-income ‘undesirables’ for the problems of the crumbling economy and devastating social unrest, with the gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ widening by the day, with detainment camps along the borders and police shooting unarmed POC ‘suspects’ seemingly without consequence almost daily, and with the average citizen so desperate for stability and their shot at having a piece of the pie, the American Dream that they were promised, that murder seems like a good trade for a government check of five thousand dollars… Dmitri’s final line of dialogue, “We fight”, is more poignant than ever. The First Purge is as timely a social commentary as the horror genre could possibly provide, and we can only hope that watching it instills a sense of rebellion and compassion among even the most damaged hearts walking this nation’s soil, and that if the time comes when you must decide if you’d like to put blue baptisia flowers on your doorstep or turn away from the bloodshed, you tell the New Founding Fathers of America exactly where they can shove it.
(Writer’s note: As an aside, there’s a mid-credits sequence that’s a trailer for the upcoming USA miniseries based on the franchise, and it’s… odd. It’s an expositional narration while close-ups of someone forging a mask and cleaning/organizing weaponry plays, showing absolutely nothing about what we can expect from the series. Is it set post-Election Year, when the NFFA has risen up to fight against the abolishment of the Purge? Is it in a parallel timeline to an existing film? We know nothing from this teaser, and it seems wildly out of place stuffed in the credits this way, especially with the huge ‘This fall on USA’ titlecard making it evident this is a TV commercial. This segment is poorly executed and its placement in the film reel is off-putting and ineffective; our theater had already emptied out almost entirely before it even came on. Still, I remain optimistic for the miniseries; the casting, Fiona Dourif in particular, has me intrigued and I’m invested enough in this franchise that I wore a Purge mask to the screening, so it’s safe to say I’ll be tuning in. Will you?)