Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Rebirth of a Nation: THE FIRST PURGE

The First Purge is the best one yet. It's as tense, exciting, and horrifying as the premise's potential, with a recognition that what began as a B-movie funhouse mirror held up to the worst cracks in our culture has steadily gained too-close-for-comfort resonance. After all, it's much harder to scoff when presented with a future America where a gleefully authoritarian administration pursues transparently evil policies despite massive backlash in order to please their loud minority of hateful supporters. Series' screenwriter James DeMonaco takes us, in this fourth entry, back to the beginning, before the country was irrevocably changed by embracing the national Purge, an annual 12-hour period in which all crime is legal ("including murder," goes the consistent darkly amusing thumb-on-the-scale addendum). Here it's an introductory experiment inflicted on Staten Island, where the locals batten down the hatches as their protests fall on deaf ears. The government creeps -- pasty slugs in suits plus Marisa Tomei in a relatively thankless role -- rub their hands in glee as night falls and the laws go with them. Here is a horror movie about the inexorable march of a very bad idea, stoked by all the worst impulses of the deplorables and purposely built to damage those least prepared to survive. There's a sick dread to scenes in which impoverished locals are given stipends to stay, and the bridges and ferries are closed off trapping those who can't afford to flee. Late in the picture, a suit casually says he hopes the Purge helps thin the population of the poor to lower the need for welfare programs, but it's already clear what the endgame really is. 

When the locals don't go instantly murder-happy, eager interlopers are let loose to ensure the carnage happens. We watch as our main characters -- plucky sister and brother (Lex Scott Davis and Joivan Wade), a blaxploitation-cool kingpin (Y'lan Noel), quipping neighbors -- sit tight in apartments, gather in church, attend block parties. Sure, the local psychotic heads out to fight, and one guy takes a crowbar to an ATM, but it's mostly business as usual. This doesn't work for a government that needs this purge of "undesirables." Luckily, their party loyalists are available to stoke violence and fear: the NRA, the KKK, racist cops, and Russian mercenaries. (Apt collusion, there.) As directed by Gerard McMurray, this prequel is thus far the fullest activation of the series' potential. The usual action-tinged horror and horror-tinged action of these films is here exploited to vivid political energy as well as fine-tuned suspenseful images. (A nice touch is glowing contact lenses handed out to paid participants, lighting up shadows with pops of eerie neon eyes.) We follow our characters through the usual scrapes and escapes, jump scares and splatters, while the tableaux around them pack extra violent symbolic punch. We see grinning white police beating an unarmed black man on a baseball diamond (America's pastimes?) and groups in white hoods bearing torches as they ride up to terrorize a church. We see paramilitary fascists barreling down on the projects to carry out a mass shooting. The catharsis kicks in as our main characters not only dodge and survive, but fight back in gory, satisfying sequences of resistance. The situation is dire. The Purge will be with them for years to come. But at least if they fight, things just might eventually be all right.

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