There are certain movies critics call “review-proof,” and then there’s The First Purge. A franchise not smart enough to truly explore the sociopolitical ideas that it uses as window dressing for aggressive meanness and brutality, the Purge films generally defy condemnation in an era where legit exploitation cinema barely exists, and to try and call out its cold-blooded stupidity only plays into the filmmakers’ hands. But this fourth installment, a prequel designed to explain the origins of the series, feels like a culmination of its consistently undercooked social commentary, as low-income people of color are used as test subjects, and eventually, literal cannon fodder for Trump supporters’ wildest racist fantasies in a thriller that somehow serves as an equal-opportunity offender without managing to entertain anyone.
Admittedly, even James DeMonaco couldn’t have anticipated how timely his idea was when he first conceived it back in 2013. Per the timeline of the series, it’s 2016 in The First Purge, and the NRA-backed New Founding Fathers have installed themselves in the White House with a demagogue as President. Enlisting the expertise of social scientist Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei), the NFFA has somehow convinced the U.S. to conduct an “experiment” where fears, frustrations and anxieties are purged through a cleansing act of violence, starting on Staten Island in a crime-ridden community of housing projects. Nya (Lex Scott Davis) is on the front lines of a protest movement against the idea of turning poor people against each other, but her ex-boyfriend, druglord Dmitri (Y’lan Noel) wants to ride the night out in his stronghold. Their respective efforts not to participate in the Purge are undermined, however, when NFFA Chief of Staff Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh) decides to amplify the violence by sending teams of mercenaries into the city to kill aggressively and indiscriminately.
In other words, the First Purge is a false flag operation used to legitimize the militarization of local authorities, and to quite literally make it open season on poor people of color. But DeMonaco, working with Fruitvale Station producer-turned director Gerard McMurray, studiously avoids having a real point of view about institutionalized violence against these communities, and worse, is just plain cowardly about the prospect of a full-on race war, quite possibly the only thing that could catapult this premise to the level of exploitation that it aspires. If they wanted to follow a badass black revolutionary as he takes out racist whites, that would at least be a sort of wish fulfillment fantasy – a kind of reckless nihilism that preys on real-world ideas for lowest-common-denominator entertainment. It’s hard to find any real thrill or suspense in a story as eager to revel in black stereotypes as white ones and then try to circumvent that damage by putting paid soldiers in blackface masks and Klan garb.
To its mild credit, the film tries to acknowledge that most people, even if paid to stick around in an area where a Purge is supposedly happening, wouldn’t participate; but even with the backdrop of the Trump administration glaring down upon them, DeMonaco and the filmmakers are not smart enough to create an origin story believable even by the standards of this franchise. Tomei’s Updale initially seems unrepentant at the prospect of unleashing a tidal wave of violence upon a community that has been unsupported and marginalized economically, but she is shocked – shocked, I tell you – when she learns that the NFFA has recruited hired guns to escalate her, no, I’m serious, completely objective hypothesis that a bunch of poor people in a neighborhood run by drug dealers just need to rob and steal and kill to get the negative feelings out of their system.
Exactly why they need her at all except to church up the process is a big mystery; surely there are plenty of good ol’ boys from the South and Midwest who would thrill at the chance to go into one of them ghettos they seen on the TV and pick off a few drug-addicted welfare queens who stand between them and the white-collar affluence they deserve. But then again, that would actually be exploring the race and class-driven volatility currently fermenting n our culture, when DeMonaco and McMurray apparently only want to depict a cast comprised mostly of black and Latino actors as either victims, criminals or insane.
If you’ve seen Issa Rae’s wonderful Insecure on HBO, then you already know how good Noel can be at charming his co-stars out of their objections to his behavior. But his inexplicable proficiency with heavy artillery, and at one point, what looks like a samurai sword, further muddies any sense of cohesion or adherence to even just this film’s premise, much less the mythology of the series. Davis, who also appears in what is reportedly a much truer slice of latter-day exploitation, Superfly, strains towards the gravitas and seriousness that her and basically only her character possesses in this stereotype-laden mess, but her effort is to no avail – and the few instances where it works as a successful counterpoint to the perspective of Dimitri or the rest of the movie, it’s spelled out so plainly and conventionally that there’s no impact.
Following just a few days after the release of Sicario: Day of the Soldado, a movie exploring morality within the battle for the U.S.-Mexico border, there’s an interesting and probably necessary conversation brewing about the distinction between depiction and endorsement in films like these. Do they promote fear and divisiveness? Are they merely meditations on the true cost of repairing societies ravaged by social ills? Certainly mileage will vary in the answers to these questions. And perhaps there is an argument to be made for the cleansing power of something nasty and mean in a summer movie season otherwise populated by liberating escapism. But quite frankly, at least as far as The First Purge is concerned, I wish there was less depiction and more endorsement – of any point of view, because the lack of one is not just spectacularly distasteful, but wildly irresponsible.
Of course, some prospective viewers might consider that a recommendation. And that’s why the movie is, to some extent, review-proof – as a critic, I’m not sure what’s to be gained by championing humanity over its barbaric cruelty other than plenty of hate mail and angry comments. But without filmmakers at the helm with something to say, I’ll settle for that any day of the week over watching another one of these again.