The First Purge Review - Hypocritical Escapism 29/07/18
“I need to Purge!” shouts deranged Skeletor (Rotimi Paul), covered in tribal-style tattoos connoting his African heritage, in the powerful opening close-up shot of The First Purge (2018). He gazes into the camera and exposes his glowing contact lenses: an indication of his eager participation in America’s night of brutal catharsis. Unfortunately, the promising beginning of the film is followed by a dull spectacle of mindless violence.
Blumhouse’s Purge franchise comes back with the fourth instalment of its dystopic fantasy of a single night during which violence and crime, including rape, burglary or murder, become legal. The film will be followed by a TV series based on the same idea. Sadly, this brilliant concept that holds the opportunity to illustrate the state of the shared American consciousness under Trump’s presidency - its anxieties, fears, racial and equality tensions - has been, once again, unexploited. Despite the fact that The First Purge is extremely aware of the way it portrays minorities, especially people of colour, the chance to convey a strong political messages has been missed. Instead, Blumhouse Productions serves us another indistinctive action-thriller which will work perfectly as entertaining summer escapism, rather than thoughtful political commentary.
Written by James DeMonaco and directed by Gerard McMurray B-movie The First Purge takes the viewers back to the conception of the annual American Purge night. The film is set on Staten Island, which has been chosen by right-wing party The New Founding Fathers of America (or The NFFA) to conduct their ground-breaking social experiment: over a 12-hour period the citizens can (and are encouraged to) commit any crime without legal consequence.
The NFFA claims that by releasing repressed anger on a single night, society will undergo the catharsis that is very much needed in order to save the slaughtered American economy. The main motive of the party is, however, much more sinister. Far from being occupied by the well-being of American citizens, The New Founding Fathers are deeply engaged in reinforcing the privileges of the white and rich. The location of the experiment, Staten Island, has been selected carefully as it’s occupied by vast aggregation of people with African-American or Latino background. In addition, many of them live in poverty and desperation which makes them easy to manipulate given they are ready to do anything in order to gain income. Therefore, participants receive £5000 if they agree to remain on the island during Purge night and are promised extra reward for active attendance. In order to minimise public objections against the experiment, it is supervised by its conceiver: social scientist Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei) who declares the idea as absolutely politically neutral. The above set up seems to be an ideal point of departure for a deeper exploration of the anguish and hopelessness experienced on a daily basis by members of the lower American social classes. It is important and even crucial to debate the possible outcome of this social desperation. If the clues about the state of the shared German consciousness, very clearly represented in German Expressionism, were taken seriously would II World War never have happened?
McMurray’s prequel, however, chooses not explore these issues in too much depth. The plot is focused around compassionate, benevolent activist Nya (Lex Scott Davis) who demonstrates against the proposed experiment and her ex-boyfriend (and king of local drug gang) Dmitri (Y’lan Noel). Disappointingly, the couple serve as one dimensional epic action heroes built on worn, unimaginative stereotypes. On the other hand, it seems restorative that this time it is a person of colour, not a “white hero” who guides us through the city as it is flooded with madness and brutality.
The main problem with the Purge franchise in general is its inability to truly enter the American psyche. In order to experience catharsis, there is the need to face repressed demons while being aware of the suffering it will bring. Consequently, DeMonaco and McMurray escape from Freudian ‘monsters from id’ into the world of not-so-shocking empty violence. It doesn’t mean, however, that I discount the importance of using violence on screen in order to convey a political message. Sergei Eisenstein noted “conflict as the fundamental principle for the existence of every artwork and every art-form” and therefore recognised violence (not necessarily its literal representation, but the violence in form) as one of the most important aspects of cinema. However, in twenty-first century life, it is associated with the experience of shocks that are being ‘packed and consumed as entertainment’ (Charney, 2001:55). A world submerged in omnipresent violence and brutality needs a new kind of tangibility in order to realise its own degradation. Following Leo Carney: ‘As people feel increasingly distant from the ability to feel things, they need more and more stimulation to wake them up’ (2001:55).
McMurray’s film, sadly, lets us sleep and dream our lucid dreams about the spectacle of the annual Death Carnival. The film makes us giggle in the moments which, with such current relevance, should terrify us to the bone. The First Purge is hypocritical in its core by trying to make a powerful political statement while being the product of the system that it tries to fight.
Charney, L. Violence And American Cinema (ed. Slocum, J. D.), 2001, Routledge: London