Friday, 20 July 2018

IN THEATRES: The First Purge

America is in chaos. Disenchanted voters ignore the main parties and elect a new extremist party, the New Founding Fathers, who are intent on reversing the country's moral and economic decline. The centrepiece of their platform is a radical idea to eliminate America's poorest and non-WASP.

Cast as a national day of release for all citizens, the NFFA decide to test this 'purge' concept in a controlled environment: Staten Island. With the promise of financial rewards for participants, the 'Purge' is proving popular, despite protests from local resident/community activist Nya (Lex Scott Davis), and local crime boss Dmitri (Y'lan Noel).

Once Purge night begins, our heroes try to survive the night, while the Purge's creators follow events from offsite. When the expected mayhem does not escalate, the NFFA deploy their backup plan, infiltrating the community with groups of mercenaries, white supremacists and other groups who are more than happy to deliver on the violence.

As this organised slaughter begins, it falls to Dmitri to take a stand to save his community from the first Purge...

Though a prequel, this film feels like a logical progression for the franchise. As America's sociopolitical situation has declined, The Purge's violent re-purposing of the countries's fissures - race, guns capitalistic excess - have become more explicit and savage. There is no real satire here, and absolutely no subtext:

The New Founding Fathers, with their bundling up of racial cleansing within religious morality, is only slightly off from the Republican Party's current ideological bent, and the film foregrounds images of racial oppression (Ku Klux Klan cloaks, SS uniforms and insignia, and attackers in police uniforms stalking black people).

At its heart, The Purge movies are old-school exploitation cinema. Like the low-budget filmmakers of the sixties and seventies, they take taboo ideas and put them in front of the camera with little tact or real nuance. That may be a dividing line for some people. I'm on the 'pro' side of that line - these movies feel synced into the current zeitgeist in a way that feels extremely cathartic.

These movies are about the satisfaction of watching a literal Nazi get his neck broken. Or stabbed. Or shot. Or blown up.

And on that count, this movie is extremely satisfying.

Series creator James DeMonaco takes a break from the director's chair for this instalment, replaced by Burning Sands writer-director filmmaker Gerard McMurray.

I will be honest - DeMonaco's direction has never been a key part of the franchise's appeal: his camerawork is too shaky; his editing too berserk. By contrast, McMurray adopts a more composed and controlled aesthetic. He uses extreme close-ups, steady framing, and judicious use of extreme close-ups. The duration of his shots also feels longer.

You might read that last paragraph and roll your eyes, but there is a level of striaght-forward craftsmanship here that really improves the viewing experience. The absence of DeMonaco's jerky camerawork, aggressive editing and muddy colour palette gives this movie a leg up over the previous movies.

While I do not think it is the best overall, on an aesthetic level this movie is more unsettling. The previous movies have some great moments of tension (think the dysfunctional family our heroes visit in Anarchy), but it is impeded by DeMonaco's direction. With a more deliberate pace, and emphasis on sound design, this movie is scary in a way that the previous movies have not been.

Now one of the chief joys of the last two Purge movies is the presence of Frank Grillo as the grizzled ex-cop Leo Barnes. For those missing his bad-assery, I have to say this movie does not drop the ball. The third act of this movie is a series of great action sequences involving Dmitri as he flips the tables on the state-sanctioned Purgers who are turning Staten Island into a war zone.

The brutal stairwell fight between Dmitri and two attackers is shot in a series of steady, moving wide shots  that allow you to follow the choreography. Special kudos to the people behind the sound design - the stabbing and neck-breaking sounds are very loud and satisfying.

As far as the acting goes, this might be the most earnest. There are certain characters in the previous movies which go way OTT: the woman with the megaphone and the auction announcer in Anarchy; the candy girls in Election Year. Those performances feel like an extension of the tone, which is aiming for a more ironic edge ala Paul Verhoeven's work (RoboCop; Total Recall). In contrast, The First Purge is far more serious in tone, and even the more cartoonish character Skeletor (Rotimi Paul) is not played for laughs.

 Lex Scott Davis and Y'lan Noel (HBO's Insecure) are good as the leads. Davis is basically playing the conscience of the movie. The movie does a good job of making her strong, without turning her into an action hero. It has become shorthand to show the female lead's strength and agency through guns and/martial arts. Nya is a community organiser, not a superhero, and Davis does a good job of making Nya not feel like a girl scout - she comes across as an informed member of the community, a pragmatic personality who knows everybody and is not afraid to stand up to its more threatening denizens.

Noel, as Dmitri is the real standout. Dmitri is a character that could come off as a cliche - the gang boss who really has a heart of gold. As the character with the biggest arc, Noel finds a way to make his transformation from intimidating, self-involved gangster to battered protector of his people. Noel treats his men like members of a family business, and he manages to strike the right balance between Dmitri's cold approach to his men's Purge-related transgressions, with his concern for their welfare.

Establishing the lead character of the movie as a Republican stereotype of black masculinity is one of the movie's more daring conceits - and Noel's performance gives Dmitri a sense of moral conflict that makes him more empathetic, and makes his transformation into action hero the visceral highpoint of the movie.

A few more words about the tone.

There is a dead-eyed momentum to the movie, as the filmmakers force the viewer to reckon with these first Purgers as people with so few options that accepting money to kill people makes sense. It is not because they are greedy; but because they are looking for a way out.

Rather like Election Year, the film spends time with Dmitri, Nya and other people living in the community, creating an empathetic group of people who will become the Purge's first victims. It is easy to see The First Purge as more of a disaster movie, playing into our knowledge of the Purge by creating a world that has never experienced it.

While it is a prequel, The First Purge never feels like it is ticking off boxes, or is hemmed in by having to hew to specific events or characters (here's looking at you, Solo). The story feels self-contained and unique to itself. One of the things I love about the series is the focus on single stories - so many franchises are hung up on building multi-film stories. It is detrimental to good story-telling, and outside Marvel it has not been successful (and even that franchise has its problems).

Darker and more politically incisive than its forbearers, The First Purge may be the most mature and disturbing entry in the series. Long may it prosper!


The Purge: Anarchy

The Purge: Election Year

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