The First Purge and all the images you see in this review are owned by Universal Pictures
Directed by Gerard McMurray
Do you realize that it’s ONLY been two years since the last Purge movie? It feels like an ETERNITY since then, and that’s mostly due to the way that reality deviated in much worse way than Election Year had predicted, and we’re gonna be suffering through this waking nightmare for quite a bit longer; especially with the inevitable ideological shift of the Supreme Court. Now the last movie managed to be my favorite movie of 2016 which puts me in a rather exclusive category of people who liked it more than La La Land, Arrival, and Moonlight, and I still stand by that decision no matter WHAT Rotten Tomatoes gave it! The franchise has only gotten better with each movie, a feat that I a franchise has rarely if EVER pulled off, and the reason why is because the filmmakers BELIEVE in their premise and build upon it each time; expanding the lore, coming up with creative ways to murder, and most importantly hammering down and fine tuning its message that is stronger than most “respectable” movies that try to do the same thing. With this one though, they’re not only going for their most radically political yet, but also make it a successful prequel which is rarely a good idea for ANY horror franchise. Heck, do you even REMEMBER they did a prequel to The Thing or that Leatherface prequel from last year? If there’s one franchise that has a chance of pulling it off though, it’s this one. Does this movie manage to elevate the bar once again for smart and brazen horror films, or have they finally managed to bite off more than they can chew in a political climate that may be too hot for even THIS series to handle? Let’s find out!!
With unemployment on the rise and an ineffective response from the government to fix it, the United States is breaking out in protests across the country which may SOUND like a reflection of our own time, but hold your horses! We haven’t gotten to the takeover of the government by a Fascist political party! Yes, in all this turmoil (much of it I assume is manufactured as a way to justify racist, classist, and nationalist policies), the New Founding Fathers of America gain enough popularity as a political party that they win the White House and presumably the other branches of government; paving the way for them to come up with a plan to fix everything by which I mean killing off poor people. No wait! We can’t be THAT blatant right away. Let’s just call it… an experiment! Yeah, that’ll work! Using some rather sketchy science from a doctor of… something (Marisa Tomei), the NFFA has sectioned off Staten Island as the site of a sociological test to see if it’ll be the solution to increased crime rates which is, you guessed it, THE PURGE. For twelve hours, paid volunteers who offered to stay on the island (and those who couldn’t afford to get off) will be able to commit ANY crime they wish, up to and including murder, and our tour guides for this night of horror Nya (Lex Scott Davis) who’s been organizing protests for this event from the beginning, her brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade) who’s considering partaking in the violence, and a local gangster named Dmitri (Y’Lan Noel) who has a history with Nya and is just as skeptical as she is of what’s REALLY gonna happen on this fateful night. Will our heroes survive a night of unmitigated horrors doled out by fascist politicians and easy led fools? Just how far will the government go to make this experiment the new law of the land, and will justice ever find its way back to them? How is it that THIS franchise has never gotten an Oscar nomination, but everyone tripped over themselves to heap praise on Three Billboards when it’s message was a weak sauce version of the one in these films!?
It’s hard to say whether or not this is better than the last one because the few problems that plague what is otherwise another FANTASTIC entry in the series are almost unavoidable in order for this film to address what it needs to. The last movie was all about hope in the face of pure evil and had one hell of a happy (if a bit bittersweet) ending that made the grueling journey that much more worth it. In addition to that, the political overtones were much more broad because… well at that time (four months before the election) we thought we could AFFORD to handle things with a certain amount of distance and optimism. This movie though is made in a time where many of us are either struggling each and every day just to survive or are watching the rest of the world suffer while we try to do what we can to make things better. I’ve been feeling particularly useless in the last year or so as every day brings a whole new low point for our politics and the fact that we have little to no way of stopping it until the midterms only makes everything feel that much more futile. This movie is less reflective of THAT specific viewpoint though as there is a degree of optimism to it, but the overriding theme is one of utter annihilation with the best we could hope for is to survive. I will warn you that things get INCREDIBLY bleak at points as this movie goes to some very dark places (particularly in the second half), but it never feels NEEDLESSLY dark like Hereditary or Mother did as it’s all reflective of what the world has become (or at least what more people are realizing what the world has always been) since that fateful night in 2016. Did you want another Purge movie with creative traps and a Super Bad AssTM karate chopping masked weirdos for an hour and a half? Well we all wanted not to be in the situation we are now, but here we are and here is the movie that had to be made because of it. Now that’s not to say that there isn’t at least a LITTLE bit of the fun stuff peppered throughout, but make no mistake that things have gotten much more serious around here; mostly for the better to be sure, but not without a few flaws or questionable moments.
The big issue here is tone as the moments where I question whether it works are when it gets to its most incendiary moments as well as when it switches awkwardly between uncomfortably chilling and wiz-bang fun exploitation. The big idea of this movie that was only really touched on or left as a background element in the previous films is the idea of The Purge as a form of ethnic cleansing; a state sponsored free for all against minorities being subsidized by every card carrying monster who puts on their good face 364 days out of the year and effortlessly slip it off on the one night they told not to hold back. Here it’s the centerpiece of the movie as the worst violence perpetrated is not against the fellow Purgers but against innocent civilians who are gunned down for no rhyme or reason; not even the flimsy excuse of revenge or the sadistic craving for a cheap thrill. No, when the shoe drops in the second half, this is straight up Nazis and Fascists roaming the streets looking for people of color to kill, and while they hold back a bit on showing the worst of it, the aftermath is left for all to see and it is pretty disturbing. This begs the question as to whether or not showing this many people of color being murdered and victimized by The State (and those working in the name of it) is necessary to impart the ghastliness of all this, or if it’s a needlessly cheap way to get a rise out of the audience. For this I’d certainly refer to those who are better versed on the subject than myself as the sickening feeling I got from this movie at points (particularly a scene involving a church) still pales in comparison to what it must be like for people to see such awful imagery on screen who have to deal with the threat of this kind of violence in their daily lives.
Aside from that, there are still some of the other elements don’t work all that well. There’s a character in this played by Rotimi Paul who is clearly mentally disturbed and the movie does a great job of portraying him as being shamelessly used by the corrupt system that never tried to help him and is now a convenient blunt instrument to attack his own community so that said system can be rid of “undesirables” while blaming it on them as well (i.e. black on black crime). It’s an idea that works pretty well but where it starts to falter is when the movie ALSO wants him to be a scary villain in the picture which feels a bit tone oblivious. You don’t have to be mentally ill or a drug addict (this dude seems to be both) to be a ruthless killer and these things are already conflated too often which you’d think a movie that’s trying to be THIS aware of problems created by the upper class would try to avoid, but this is where having such a strong political stance can uncomfortably butt up against the thriller elements from the previous films. There are other moments and small plot points here and there that don’t quite gel together (*cough* murderous prostitutes *cough* Marisa Tomei *cough*), but for the most part I think the ways that this movie succeeds in even TRYING to address these issues are far more important than the moments it fails to truly grasp the best way of CONVEYING that message due to the widening divide between what people WANT to see in a Purge movie and what they NEED to see in one.
Now don’t go thinking that this is ALL about the heavy subject matter because while the action is no longer the centerpiece, they still manage to do some interesting things with it this time around. Whether or not you feel the violence is excessive in the second half, it is worth pointing out that they do a great job of scaling it back to make it FEEL like the first Purge without losing all of the stylistic flair that made this franchise what it is. There aren’t as many masked fools with elaborate weaponry and traps this time around, but in doing so it manages to make the violence more brutal than ever; seeing the first tentative steps of a society on the brink of falling into their own worst habits and the messy ways that they go about it. It’s still a brilliant conceit to wrap a thriller around as we get the scenes of our heroes peeking behind corners and dashing from one end of the street to the other while hoping they don’t run into someone looking to stab them in the face. Sadly it all feels a BIT perfunctory here as the shift in focus means these scenes don’t get the time or attention then need to match Anarchy or Election Year (neither do the secondary characters in the group like Luna Lauren Velez and Chyna Layne), but it’s still a heck of a lot more engaging than half the stuff that Blumhouse puts out every year, and they make up for it with a fantastic finale in an apartment building that’s almost like an updated version of the ending of 28 Days Later. If you’re coming into this just for the action and not for the brilliantly layered messages that the series have always been a hallmark of the sequels then you might be leaving this one disappointed; but like I said, this is the Purge movie we need right now and I’d wager you’ll still get something out of it if you listen to what it’s saying.
This isn’t as fun as the previous films, but in a way it might just be the best one. I’m still on the fence on that though as I’d like to see how others react to the imagery on screen and whether the message in this is legitimately inspiring or just another attempt from Hollywood to co-opt social movements (it’s STILL a mainstream feature released with the intention of making money), but almost no movie with the intent of getting in front of this many people can separate itself from the capitalistic nature of the industry and I think the effort is more than admirable given the political climate and the dire stakes that every single day seems to bring. It’s absolutely worth seeing in the theaters, though keep in mind that this is a much bleaker movie and there are lots of people who prefer to see stuff like this in the privacy of their own home rather than out in the world and with a crowd, and I’d be a bit hesitant to recommend it if you fall into that camp. It might not surpass the third film as far as ENJOYABLE movies about fighting the power, but it has the most bitter and damning story to tell which alone elevates it above most films in the genre. Maybe it doesn’t quite reach the levels of depth and nuance as say Get Out, but even being in the ballpark of that is still quite an accomplishment; especially for a series that could have gone the easy route and turned this into one big blood sport. Nah, we’ll have to wait for the TV series to get that!