The fourth film produced in ‘The Purge’ series, ‘The First Purge’, takes place before the lot of them. A programme launched by the government and designed by Dr May ‘the Architect’ Updale (Marisa Tomei), called ‘the experiment’, aspires to be the answer to high crime rates in America. For a period of 12 hours, all crime is legal on Staten Island in New York. Volunteers are called upon, and financially rewarded, to participate in and record the criminal activity. Nya (Lex Scott Davis, ‘Superfly’) opts to stay behind and protect those who can’t leave. Little does she know that her brother, Isiah (Joivan Wade, Rigsy in ‘Doctor Who’), is among the volunteers.
While the question of racial inequality is not new to ‘The Purge’ franchise, with white privilege getting a particularly close look at in last outing ‘The Purge: Election Year’, ‘The First Purge’ considers the theme in more depth than ever before. It is the first in the series to feature a predominantly black cast, and embodies a number of topics and issues relating to race such as class, violence, masculinity and gang warfare.
‘The Experiment’ targets the desperate, the impoverished and the infuriated of the inhabitants of Staten Island and the effective direction of Gerard McMurray (best-known for Netflix film ‘Burning Sands’, as well as an exec producer on Ryan Coogler’s breakout film ‘Fruitvale station’) quickly has you on side. One gets the sense that Blumhouse, the horror studio behind ‘The First Purge’ and its predecessors, is playing off the success of its mega-hit ‘Get Out’, and while the racial commentary in this latest film isn’t nearly as creative as Jordan Peele’s film, it remains thoughtful and compelling.
Aside from not really having anything new to say, one of the downsides to ‘The First Purge’ is the mixed standard of acting, likely owing to the film’s avoidance of big name movie stars. Y'lan Noel (‘Insecure’) is never fully believable as big time gangster Dimitri while Marisa Tomei, as talented an actress as she is, seems disposable as a character, though this is likely owing to the generally dull cutaway scenes following her and the NFAA’s (New Founding Fathers of America) monitoring of the purge activities. Lex Scott Davis at least provides a strong female lead. However, the standout is newcomer Rotimi Paul, who from the very first scene is truly terrifying as the maniacal Skeletor.
It’s easy to get lost in the world of ‘The First Purge’, and while it lacks the scare factor to be considered a horror, it is exhilarating and can definitely be considered a thriller. With a strong opening, heart-racing finale, and interesting social themes woven throughout, ‘The First Purge’ has its issues but is a surprisingly riveting movie.