The Purge franchise started with a small and focused story set in a a world of fascinating premise. What would happen if for one night a year, all crime was legal? But the purge itself was not really the point, it wasn’t plot, it was setting to tell a story. But they became so enamored with the setting that subsequent entries made the setting itself the point. They let the means become the ends and stumbled backwards into deeply half assed attempts at social commentary. The First Purge is the worst offender of the bunch.
It’s set the night of the very first purge, a social experiment by a fascist government intent on demonstrating through a bloodletting on Staten Island that what we really need is violence as an outlet for all of our stress and rage. Have you seen the trailer? Then you’ve seen the movie.
Within the first ten minutes, you should be able to predict exactly how everything else for the rest of the movie will go. Not because you’re super clever — though maybe you are, I don’t know your life — but because this is so transparently written that TVTropes is probably owed a screenwriting credit. People do the sort of stupid things they’re supposed to do in a horror movie, and we’re supposed to root for them.
Ooh, and spoiler alert, the fascists who invented Murder Night end up being the bad guys. Not because of the aforementioned invention, but because they cheat by sending in soldiers to generate a body count. I mean, if you can’t trust the sponsors of Murder Night, who can you trust?
Warning: the following paragraph contains scientific research jokes that will be gibberish to 90 percent of you:
Marissa Tomei is completely wasted as the “scientist” who comes up with Murder Night and then gets offended that the external validity of the experiment is being compromised by the introduction of exogenous effects intended to bias the outcome of the trial. There really is no way she got this research plan approved by IRB. In addition, the movie asks us to believe that conservative politicians would support large scale government funding of social science. This, to me, is the most implausible part of the film.
The drug kingpin who murders anyone who steps out of line with dozens of underlings and an arsenal big enough repel a Soviet invasion of Colorado naturally turns into the hero of the film. I’m sure that his organization acquired dozens of assault rifles for home defense and hunting. He straight up John Wicks his way through squads of trained mercenaries. Which is totally reasonable.
See, the thing is, all the stuff I’m describing could work if done ironically, if it had been filmed with any sort of self-consciousness of the sheer silliness it’s asking us to buy into. Drug dealer with a heart of gold plays. Criminals suddenly becoming heroes plays. We can overlook almost anything if you’re willing to wink at us while you film it. But the movie insists on playing it with a completely straight face, absolutely embracing its delusion of being serious social commentary.
Horror movies are fueled by metaphor. They come at us sideways, giving us images of monsters and pain that resonate with us in nonliteral ways. They layer those terrors so our lizard brain is buffeted from different directions with visceral responses that complement each other. When you strip out the metaphor, when you just lay bare violence and expect the audience to soak in it, you’re just making torture porn. The First Purge is societal torture porn. No metaphor, no thoughtfulness, just body count.
So the jackbooted thugs go door to door massacring the innocent, brown and black bodies littering the hallways. They massacre hundreds taking shelter for the night in a church. They coordinate on the radios, converging anywhere that people are gathered, tearing them apart with bullets. The community center is annihilated, the kids playing basketball torn down in the streets, the partiers defying the night’s theme shredded where they dance.
And all the while the cable news heads narrate, putting up the veneer of normalcy to the whole affair. No air time to judge or criticize when there is objectivity to consider. On the one hand the gutters are clogged with the blood of the innocent, but on the other hand the fascists are pointing out that this is necessary progress. Fair and balanced, we’ll let you decide. Well gosh Karen, we have here exclusive footage of a man being gutted. Wow Chad, you can see the light fade from his eyes! This just in though, some participants are wearing masks while they murder hundreds of people. We go now live to Patty, a local mask enthusiast, for her thoughts.
No subtext, just text. Just what we’ve seen on decades old documentaries, and what we’re worried we’ll see within our lifetimes. It’s not a movie that scares, nor provokes thought. It doesn’t even give you a hollow victory to feel better about for a few minutes.
It just makes you sad and tired.
Dr. Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.