There’s an old talking point that says when Republicans are in office, we get better horror films. It’s not entirely inaccurate, either; a quick look at the horror boom in the early 1980s probably provides the easiest and best evidence of this idea, considering what was happening not only stateside but in the world. Some of you may be too young to remember the Cold War (I’m old, and I barely do), but with Ronald Reagan’s masterful “Bear in the Woods” tactics tricking America into thinking doom and demise were around the corner, the social climate was set up perfectly for horror movies. Because, frankly, political regimes based in crisis and fear-mongering produce scared citizens more or less looking for a way to purge their edginess, so what better way than to go to the movies?
The idea is, I guess, to live out a fantasy apocalypse to better prepare ourselves for an actual one, or at the very least escape into a place where the film’s writers do all the heavy thinking for us. Further, I’ve also often talked about how today’s Hollywood is feeding us false serenity in the guise of superhero movies; with a few exceptions, those low-stakes CGI-fests don’t necessarily offer so much as far as telling us who our enemies are or what we as a people should be collectively fighting for. How much of that is the intention of the creators, though? Probably not a lot, but I can’t help but think there might be a few very powerful higher-ups pulling the strings of complacency there. Then again, I may be conspiracy-minded.
Wait a minute, did I say “purge”? Wow, this is an introduction, and I’m already digressing. Yes, I did say “purge.”
2018’s The First Purge couldn’t have come at a better time, but we all know that. Like its predecessors, the film warns us of a future in which a new political party has emerged that cleverly masks its fascism with a wash of faux-patriotism, but this installment is a prequel rather than a sequel. Whereas the first three movies are maybe twenty years down the road, The First Purge lives in the now, offering us a harsh look in the mirror at our own sociopolitical unrest. Arguably, that “look” contains sequences and dialogue that may be a bit too “on the nose” (the line “pussy-grabbing motherfucker!” comes to mind), but going along with my previous point, sometimes we have to have these things clearly remind us who our enemies are. The film tackles an array of hot topics like government conspiracy, eugenics, the societal role(s) given to black/brown folk, and the cycle of poverty, pitching perspective to us at every turn. But it’s also a film of mixed messages when it comes to some of those issues, as realistic as they may be. It operates on certain assumptions that aren’t exactly flattering to its subjects — which is unfortunate, but seemingly unavoidable. Still, they are assumptions, and we all know what assuming does.
One major assumption presented in the film is that poor people only care about the instant gratification of receiving money. The struggle of living paycheck to paycheck is too much for most of these characters, so a lot of them gladly accept the $5,000 offer given by the government as an incentive for participating in the Purge Experiment. The film actively drives in the idea that five grand would be life-changing for a number of these people (our protagonists sort of repeat this ad nauseam), and no doubt it potentially would be. There’s a substantial portion of Americans this definitely would be a reality for; the ones who frequent check-cashing places because they can’t afford a bank account, the ones who payday loan businesses prey upon, the ones who are living in squalor not by choice. But I have to wonder, is this theme a very subtle hint at poor-shaming? Could be. Saying with certainty that those in poverty will do anything for a buck even if it goes against a moral standard is a bit much though, so honestly, probably not. Really, it seems more of an indictment of how the government can and will exploit the poor — which is most assuredly based in fact (remember about ten years back when George W. gave us all an extra $600?). So, it’s likely a comment on how poor-shaming exists as a tool for the people in power rather than an idea shared by the filmmakers. (Side note: it’s funny to me how wealthy people might laugh at the poor for being so desperate for money when wealth itself begets more greed than anything else in the world. Just take a job in food service and see how much some rich people will tip you. They legitimately can’t let it go.)
But one thing this film does absolutely right is feature people of color in every major heroic role, and at the same time portraying them in a fully rounded way — and without drawing too much undue attention to race or gender. The First Purge doesn’t pander, it doesn’t pat itself on the back, it’s a true-to-life representation of the citizens of Staten Island with only the agenda of “this is regular folk, this is you and me.” However, within that, there’s still the unfortunate idea put forth that characterizations of people of color are limited to criminals, namely drug dealers. So, no wonder that the stereotypical drug kingpin would be a black man, but what’s cool about it is that he is presented in a nuanced way. Dmitri (Y’lan Noel) is a man of strong morals, yet he’s a criminal — which seems contradictory, but that’s how human nature goes. No one of us is one hundred-percent good or bad, and it’s important for people to see these kinds of representations in order to better understand humanity. It’s almost as if there’s a message here that we should be addressing what society does to produce and maintain criminality rather than focusing on the criminals themselves, but I may be digressing again.
We can say, though, that stereotypes exist for a reason. Namely, that they’re based in some form of reality. But whereas a stereotype is often negative in connotation, we can shift to the similar-but-very different term “archetype” when addressing a few of the characters The First Purge gives us. For example, something that always kind of strikes me as “too easy” with the writing of people of color is when they’re always depicted as churchgoers. Not only that, but they’re sassy. Sassy churchgoers. Maybe I can blame my aversion to Tyler Perry comedies for this (actually, yes, I probably can), and while I can’t consider this type of characterization stereotypical in the negative sense, that doesn’t mean that an archetype can’t be slightly irritating to see repeatedly. Also, that doesn’t mean that in reality I don’t understand that in a time of crisis people would undoubtedly gather at a church, or that I don’t agree with a community church acting as a safe space. Still, I don’t like to see my characters reduced in such a way, but it’s so lightly handled in this picture I’m not sure I can count this as a registered complaint. (Note: in another very on-the-nose move, this movie has a group of white supremacists shooting up that church. It’s an emotionally tumultuous scene that somehow becomes even more evil as the story unfolds.)
But why do we assume people want to purge, anyway? We meet a character called Skeletor (Rotimi Paul) early on, a hyperbolic representation of a psychopathic meth head (seriously, this guy has hokey Halloween Haunt written all over him), who has so much rage tucked away inside him it’s obvious he’d be the New Founding Fathers’ Purge poster boy. For a prequel that’s supposed to outline everything happening in America that would lead up to such unrest to make people deem a nationwide “purge” necessary, this movie leaves a lot to assumption on all of those events. Sure, there’s a montage full of police brutality and civil insurrection, and the film does feature CNN’s Van Jones speaking to those issues, but what is lacking is a bit of psychology. The “Architect” of the Purge Experiment, Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei), does very little to develop her idea or hypothesis with the audience; the portion of exposition she does have is beating it into our heads that she is politically neutral in this experiment, that she’s only doing it for scientific behavioral data. So we’re just supposed to accept what’s going on without too much intelligent debate, which I guess is okay if our topic of discussion is movie-making restraint. But what would make a better film is offering us ways to bring ourselves out of that, not just giving us “this is the way it is” when it comes to poverty or race relations, and a more fully developed and motivated psychologist/behavioral scientist would have helped that.
Mixed messages or not, though, The First Purge is actually a pretty good film. It suffers in the first act by a lack of completeness (Dr. Updale is one part of that, the other is introducing established actor Melanie Diaz as a Purge participant interviewee and never seeing her again in the film), but by the third act, it’s made up for a few missteps with characters you like, appreciate, and can celebrate victories along with. There’s some seriously badass action sequences late in the film as well, and you can tell the filmmakers took note of great modern action movies to make those scenes work (think: The Raid, John Wick). What’s so cool about this film, though, is its sense of community and togetherness, and that we do know who our enemies truly are, and we’re all fighting on the same side against them. I said that The First Purge couldn’t have come at a better time, and it’s true. Definitely watch this film. It’s bona fide patriotic.