Say what you will about The Purge franchise, but their marketing has always been on point. Since The Purge: Anarchy, the folks at Blumhouse have gone all out on the political overtones, giving Anarchy a movie poster where the American flag is made of guns and setting their third film in the middle of an election year (and then calling it The Purge: Election Year). The advertising around their fourth film is their best yet, with the posters taking a starker, sleeker and more obvious approach. For a film series that has never known the word subtlety, it was their most obvious gambit yet.
And I’m not quite sure if they pulled it off.
Focusing on Dmitri (your stereotypical gangster with a heart of gold), Nya (his kindhearted and politically motivated ex-girlfriend) and her little brother Isaiah (who doesn’t have much of a personality besides trying to do the best he can), The First Purge tells the story of, you guessed it, the very first purge. Thought up by a psychologist May Updale (played by a very weird Marisa Tomei), the New Founding Fathers, a third political party that has risen out of the ashes of the republicans and the democrats, grabs Dr. Updale’s untested ideas and runs wild with it, deciding to use Staten Island as the testing grounds for the purge. When the people aren’t purging like they want them to (outside of a few psychopaths, most people just want to party) the government decide to send the big guns in, using military force to murder people and incite violence. It’s the same story The Purge has been telling since Anarchy, but with a fresh set of kills that are guaranteed to make you cringe.
In many ways, The First Purge feels like two different movies, one of which is another tense and wild ride through the Purge universe complete with KKK robed cops and salient points about fascism, while the other seems focused on making as many bad jokes about our current political climate as humanly possible. I don’t mind cheesy horror movies, they have their place in the genre, but the jokes either have to be so bad you laugh out of embarrassment or be so strangely good that you remember them way longer than you should. The First Purge doesn’t know if it’s trying to crack a joke or make you seriously think and its constant bouncing back and forth makes the movie suffer.
When The First Purge does finally find its footing around the third act, it’s a true treat. Instead of jumping from one part of the neighborhood to the next, building up energy just to blow it all on mediocre bouts of action, all the important characters are finally together, leading to a tight and tense series of sequences that include some of the best kills in the franchise. By the time the credits roll and Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” blares through the speakers, you’ve forgotten about the missteps of the beginning of the film. You’ve also forgotten that nothing is going to be alright. The protests won’t work. People will continue to purge, the government will continue to kill poor people and minorities for sport and Ethan Hawke will be there for some reason. But The First Purge still manages to capture that rush that makes us come back to the series again and again. Throwing (some of) horrors most conservative tendencies out the window and giving us some balls to the wall scenes where racist, obnoxiously rich white people get murdered in spectacular fashion is sometimes all you need.