Director: Gerard McMurray
Cast: Lex Scott Davis, Y’lan Noel, Joivan Wade, Marisa Tomei, Lauren Velez, Rotimi Paul
Plot: A new political party, the New Founding Fathers, experiment with a night where crime, including murder, is legalised, throwing the slums of Staten Island into chaos.
The most exciting thing about the Purge is that we are now four movies in and the franchise doesn’t feel like it is slowing down. Even the tired concept of the prequel doesn’t feel out of place here – usually such a narrative shift is saved for a series flagging creatively. The Purge is thriving on its ability to constantly adapt to both the context of the world around it and also the audience’s demands. Horror franchises are often built on cash-grabbing producers forcing scripts onto directors. Insidious is going well, but do we really need another sequel? Why are we still making Annabelle movies? Yet with every new Purge movie, the argument feels stronger, the thrills are multiplied. Bring on Purge 5 in my books.
The secret is how James DeMonaco is able to shift up the tone of these movies so easily. All four Purge movies are polar opposites of themselves. Yeah, there are enough recurring motifs to make The Purge a brand name. That first Purge announcement and subsequent siren are bordering on iconic right about now. The masked killers are back, complete with an attempt at explaining why so many of the series’ villains hide their faces with scary costumes. But they never feel tired, finding new ground to cover with each instalment. Take that first movie – it is miles from this fourth entry. The perspectives are new, the style of action is fresh and the movie feels comfortable enough to rid itself of any recurring characters (no Frank Grillo or Edwin Hodge here!) A major change here is DeMonaco handing the director reigns to a newbie (Gerald McMurray with a single Sundance film to his name), and sticks to writing duties. While DeMonaco was slowly improving his directorial control over the Purge, this movie’s strength is definitely a director who can take DeMonaco’s vision and add a flourish to the material. McMurray has created a much more technically competent film. There are small beats, like isolated shots of the Purge riots on the street, where McMurray rotates the shot in an intriguing manner. A punch-up on a staircase of an apartment building is filmed with an intense, stylised approach. Sometimes it is something as simple as allowing DeMonaco’s script to breathe. DeMonaco tried to add depth way back in Anarchy, but the pacing hurtled onwards so fast, the characters never had a chance to win their ways into our hearts, the actors never getting past a caricature. McMurray creates a group of three-dimensional individuals that grow throughout the course of the First Purge. A gangster attempts to unite Staten Island. A youngster turns to violence to save his family. Stereotypes are introduced, but then stripped back, revealing beating hearts underneath. Arguably that is the most important part of the movie. The government have created the Purge based on them generalising the lower income citizens of America. This movie shows that there is more to this community than the politics would have you believe.
The First Purge is up there with Election Year in terms of thrills. In fact, you would be hard pushed to pick which one is better. The First Purge gets that little bit deeper into the political debate at the heart of this franchise. Election Year used its as a backdrop, but skimmed over the harsher points. The First Purge spends the longest time out of all four movies before the sirens blare out, slowly setting the scene, before unleashing the violence. Even then, the proper action doesn’t truly start until the second half, the citizens of Staten Island not quite opening their eyes to the potential of legalised crime. This might frustrate the fans of the last three films, but the First Purge does feel like a more realistic depiction of this universe. By stripping back the cartoonish aspects of the series, the Purge feels that little bit more possible in the real world. It is the little beats that McMurray adds – or perhaps it would be better to say, removes. Gone are the organised attacks from the last three films, because no one would have time to properly plan for this new phenomenon. Sure, it means we lose the quirky villains, finding thrills in more makeshift mask-work and primal villains (Rotimi Paul plays an appropriately creepy killer), but we make up for it in a grittiness that gives the First Purge an identity. Perhaps it loses its way in the story in the final third, becoming too focused on the action sequences and constricting the finale to a block of apartments – this is where arguments for Election Year being the better entry would start kicking in – but the end result is a thought-provoking and entertaining movie. And, best of all, there are still so many great opportunities for future Purge movies. Roll on the next four films!
Final Verdict: A change of director works wonders for the Purge franchise, the series feeling revamped with a fresh tone and strong characters.