On the failed political commentary and contradictory internal logic of the Purge franchise
The First Purge Universal Pictures
Director: Gerard McMurray
Screenplay: James DeMonaco
Starring: Lex Scott Davis, Y'lan Noel, Joivan Wade, Rotimi Paul, Christian Robinson, Marisa Tomei, Patch Darragh, Mugga, Luna Lauren Velez, Kristen Solls and Steve Harris
Rated R / 1 hour, 38 minutes / 2.39:1
July 4, 2018
(out of four)
We're well beyond the implausible. Beyond the point where we can argue with any confidence what could or could not happen, what would or would not happen. The rate at which actual events - or actual tweets - outpace the presumed exaggerations of political satire has made it harder and harder to overreach. I can't write off a fictional conceit as impossible, or as too divorced from reality, quite so easily as I could have two years ago.
Or five years ago, when the original The Purge was released. The film was premised on an annual 12-hour event in which one could, for instance, stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody without getting into any legal trouble, let alone lose voters. It became a franchise, and subsequent films expanded on the event's historical roots, its application, even its direct political construction, with fictional politicians debating its merits both in shadowy back rooms and televised debates. The sticking point with these movies has always been their dubious relationship to the reality they're commenting on. Sometimes, placing a preposterous idea within a rational and recognizable framework can sharply articulate a message, satirical or otherwise. Especially in the case of the prequel The First Purge, the placement of the Purge experiment in a reality indistinguishable from our own - to the extent that pundits like Van Jones show up for cameos in which, with a fecklessly disapproving tone, they address the government's decision to allow people to rape and murder each other one night a year - strips the commentary of its viability. Rather than hitting too close to home, "home" instead comes off as an affectation. As with all four movies in this series, The First Purge plays it too straight.
Again, I hesitate to characterize the premise as misguided during a time when a sitting U.S. president has openly suggested emulating Duterte's policy of executing drug users - not to mention his defense of Charlottesville marchers and myriad other examples of violent rhetoric. But the Purge franchise has tied itself in knots with its logistics and justifications, becoming a running contradiction in the process. It keeps using its premise to validate the very things it's trying to criticize - or believes it's criticizing. Remember that the first movie explicitly declared that the Purge had made crime virtually nonexistent the remaining 364 days of the year. American life circa 2022 was practically crime-free. The movie justified the Purge, at least in logistical (if not moral) terms. Which, at best, made it something of a morality play about ends justifying means. Its inherent metaphor was its primary justification - and even on those terms it was flimsy.
Since then, the filmmakers' approach seems to have been to try to fit everything into as literal a context as possible. Not coincidentally, the exceptions to that rule have resulted in the series' high-water marks. The second film of the series, The Purge: Anarchy, features a black-tie event in which the poor (or otherwise unlucky) are rounded up and auctioned off to be hunted. It's a big narrative gesture, its savage lampooning of class- and race-based exploitation one of the few moments in this franchise to achieve the caustic satirical pitch that actually does the premise justice.
The last time around, in The Purge: Election Year, we had to sit through politicians holding debates about the pros and cons of The Purge. But in a movie designed largely as a comment on its own premise, staging an actual argument about The Purge's social value is an exercise in redundancy. This time, as we go back to see year one of The Purge, we watch various other debates and arguments - some on TV between opposing commentators, others behind the scenes between citizens, politicians, social scientists. This straightforward hashing-out of philosophical concerns that a much better movie could elucidate without such commentary just makes the whole concept sound flatly stupid rather than symbolically extreme.
The series' awareness of what it wants to be about is not in question. The Purge is not only a crass exemplification of socioeconomic hierarchical exploitation, it's ethnic cleansing and population control designed to score political points. It's a nakedly depraved social experiment repackaged by right-wing talk-show pundits as necessary for the prosperity of the republic. At one point in The First Purge, a female character is grabbed by Trump's favorite grabbing apparatus - because when you're a Purger, they let you do it.
And yet this is also a movie in which bad guys with guns are routinely stopped only by good guys with guns - an apologia for, and outright indulgence of, an absurd NRA fantasy, breathlessly vivified by one violent setpiece after another, one last-second rescue after another. This is, to an extent, more a result of cinematic rules than anything else, but that just reinforces the wishy-washy disingenuousness of the franchise's attempt at sociopolitical relevance. What it wants to say it tries to say in a form that's self-limiting at best, self-defeating at worst.
That most of the violence boils down to clumsily stitched-together brutality means it's hard to even enjoy it on grimy B-level terms. In fairness to director Gerard McMurray - who takes over at the helm after DeMonaco directed the first three installments; DeMonaco remained as screenwriter and EP - The First Purge becomes a more stylish genre experiment in its climax, which amounts to an extended setpiece in corridors and stairwells of a high-rise apartment complex. There's even a nifty attempt at a single-take fight scene on a stairwell (an endeavor that seems to suddenly break down with an abrupt cut right in the middle of the action).
The franchise's preoccupation with murder as its crime of choice - as opposed to all other crimes, in particular ones in which people could materially benefit - is, aside from being another byproduct of genre expectations, its most relevant and most appropriate characteristic. In essence, it is the franchise's statement, and one particularly pertinent to our current social awareness. Let's just say that, were The Purge hypothetically enacted in real life, the George Zimmermans of the world would be enthusiastic participants.
That the legal defense of The Purge is not such a wild fantasy at all is something this whole series has failed to capitalize upon despite many efforts to do so. What The First Purge - and all three of its predecessors, to varying degrees - needed was a more barbed satire instead of the literal-minded grit it delivered instead. The focus on murder only exposes the franchise's failure to illustrate anything particular about the whole idea of getting away with it.