How about that horror genre! If nothing else, you can rely on it to bring worst-case scenarios to roaring life, often way before other, more reputable forms (i.e., prestige cable miniseries or Oscar-bait empowerment sagas). Consider: It has been years since Black Lives Matter made its first stand against overweening police forces and a system that lets them survive, if not thrive. It has been two years (at least) since the racist element of the alt-right had a presidential candidate — now, shudder, a president — to call its own, widening the chasm between whites and the Other by any means necessary. And now, at long last, comes a movie that exploits and throws gasoline on the whole mess: the fourth part (a prequel) of the shoddy but often ingenious and always shockingly resonant series that began with The Purge.
In The First Purge, the filmmakers have reached back in time to dramatize the origin of the national, dawn-to-dusk, license-to-kill ritual that supposedly allows society to expel its demons but in reality serves a less healing agenda. This series is actually sane in making clear that catharsis is a neo-Freudian myth. Surrendering to instead of repressing violent impulses doesn’t leave you cleansed. It leaves you eager to do more violence. It makes you blood simple.
The First Purge is pretty good if you’re not averse to caricatures, predictable twists, and lots of familiar B-movie tropes. Gerard McMurray (a producer on Fruitvale Station) builds the tension slowly, inducing unease rather than panic — and thereby heightening the shock when the blood hits the blades. He uses a handheld camera in scenes with the black protagonists, residents of Staten Island; and achieves a degree of intimacy that transcends the script. When he cuts to the white neo-fascist administration that has taken over the country with talk of restoring America to its former glory, the baddies seem positively multi-dimensional next to grifters and dummies and psychos in power right now.
The film depicts a test run for the national Purge that’s carried out on Staten Island, on the assumption that the black underclass will seize any opportunity to royally waste one another. (For some reason, the right-leaning whites who constitute a large percentage of SI and routinely elect people like Dan Donovan — who, as a prosecutor, declined to indict the police who killed Eric Garner — don’t factor into the movie.) Early on, government scientists offer hefty sums of money to black people who will stay on Staten Island instead of flee to the safety of Brooklyn or Perth Amboy. And, they fire up one of the decade’s most gleeful, rococo psychopaths, Skeletor (Rotimi Paul), who has a hard-on to be the next Freddy Krueger and can’t wait to begin skewering men, women, and probably animals, though that’s offscreen.
The chief villains are the President’s chief of staff (Patch Darragh), and a social scientist (Marisa Tomei) who’s emotionally removed from the carnage she helps unleash but at least has integrity — i.e., she doesn’t want the horrific results skewed by the insertions of right-wing militias, the Klan, and other trigger-happy Second Amendment types. That would be cheating.
But most of The First Purge centers on the do-gooder community activist Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and her ex-boyfriend, Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), a drug lord who operates with cool efficiency: He’s neither ruthless nor ruth but somewhere in the middle. Ruthl, maybe. He can be shamed by his ex, and he cringes and lies when Nya accuses him of enlisting her younger brother, Isaiah (Joivan Wade), who’s written like innumerable vulnerable male ingénues from The Wire. Isaiah has been enlisted by the government to insert the contact-lens cameras into his eyes that will pipe his killings — or the ones he observes — to the government’s command center, which will use the footage to prove to the American people that the Purge is a good thing. If nothing else, it reduces the black population — which which might well be the administration’s endgame.
Nya is saddled with a sassy sidekick and a mother with a wholesome daughter who must be protected at all costs. Ho-hum. But Lex Scott Davis is winning, and Y’lan Noel’s Dmitri is thunderously charismatic. Seriously, this guy is a star: cool, cut, and centered. We can’t wait to see him strap on those big guns and take on the KKK and the creepy Nazi-armbanded Aryan type who makes even Skeletor seem like Bruce Willis. The audience at my viewing went nuts when he shifted out of self-preservation mode and began fighting to save the hood.
The question will always hang whether splattery revenge war movies like The First Purge are purgative or inflammatory. The answer, of course, is that they’re both, which makes me watch them at arm’s length, but with the sort of clinical fascination of Marisa Tomei’s character. God help me, I’m torn down the middle, but that exposed middle is where the horror genre plants its seeds.