The movies that best define an era aren’t necessarily the best movies.
You can learn just as much about the Reagan-era ethos of the 1980s—maybe more—from Robocop and Rocky IV as from Wall Street or Broadcast News. Lurid genre flicks, especially horror, tend to have a grubby immediacy that render them timely, if not timeless.
That’s why the cheap, contemptible Saw movies sum up the dawn of the 2000s so well: What could better conjure the Bush administration than an old white guy moralizing at you while he tortures someone?
The Purge series is the undisputed pulp prognosticator of the twentyteens. The brilliant B-movie concept—that one night a year all crime is legalized so society can vent its rage—perfectly suits a fractious America whose crumbling institutions are prone to spasms of ultraviolence. And following the election of Donald Trump, the film series’ political revolution of the white, flag-hugging New Founding Fathers of America plays a lot less like shrill hyperbole.
The fourth installment of The Purge continues its tradition of being more prescient than eloquent. The First Purge also delves back into the franchise’s political mythos to reveal the corrupt intentions behind the inaugural experiment in controlled bloodletting (though how the filmmakers missed the opportunity to call this prequel The Binge remains a mystery).
The national Purge begins as a sociological gambit created by an academic, Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei), and appropriated by the New Founding Fathers for their own nefarious ends. In this smaller-scale trial run, the anarchy will be confined to a 12-hour period on New York’s Staten Island. Those who stay to participate in the closely monitored experiment are promised cash payouts.
Anti-Purge activist and community organizer Nya (Lex Scott Davis) stays on the island to help her neighbors at a church vigil, only to discover that her little brother (Joivan Wade) has gone into the night seeking revenge over a drug deal gone wrong. Her journey into the madness leads her to uncover the conspiracy behind the social experiment: The government is sending criminals and mercenaries into minority communities to stir up maximum unrest.
The First Purge co-opts the substance but none of the style of ’70s blaxploitation cinema. Its anti-hero is drug kingpin Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), who protects his neighborhood from the state-sponsored intruders.
Alas, The First Purge is defter with iconography than actual storytelling. A harrowing slow-motion shot of a pickup truck full of assault-rifle-toting KKK goons in blood-spattered robes, or the rousing promotional poster featuring a dreadlocked figure in the Statue of Liberty pose, torch replaced by a Molotov cocktail—these startling images convey most everything you need to know.
First-time series director Gerard McMurray stages semi-incoherent action sequences, and Purge creator James DeMonaco’s unsubtle subtext often sheds any pretense of artifice, parading around as plain, naked text.
Those who indulge The First Purge’s schlockier impulses—not to mention its blatantly hypocritical embrace of cathartic violence—are treated to the kind of morbidly daffy nightmare you might have if you fall asleep watching MSNBC.
But however artlessly the Purge series deals with racial disparity, contagious violence, and class warfare, it remains the rare mainstream movie addressing these issues at all.
The First Purge
Director: Gerard McMurray
Starring: Y'lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis, Joivan Wade
Theater: Area theaters, now showing