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Review: 'The First Purge' delivers genre pleasures with a timely message of resilience

Review: 'The First Purge' delivers genre pleasures with a timely message of resilience
Lex Scott Davis in a scene from "The First Purge." (Annette Brown / Universal Pictures)

Are you feeling great?

Few movies have tapped into the queasy anxiety and growing sense of societal unease of the past few years quite like the “Purge” pictures. The fourth film in the franchise, “The First Purge,” goes back to the beginning to explain the origins of how a political regime calling itself the New Founding Fathers of America (or NFFA) came to power and established an annual night of lawlessness in which most anything is permitted.

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Referred to at first as the Experiment, the initial Purge is staged on New York’s Staten Island as something of a pilot program, a contained trial. The setting, with a housing project as its central location, elevates the underlying themes of race, class and power that have run throughout the series.

This latest film is again written by James DeMonaco, who created the franchise along with the powerful production entities of Blumhouse Pictures and Platinum Dunes (respectively involved in the recent genre sensations of “Get Out” and “A Quiet Place”). But this time directing duties have been handed over to Gerard McMurray, who previously made the African American fraternity hazing drama “Burning Sands.”

Unlike the recent sequel “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” where a change in directors was vastly for the worse, McMurray brings something new and fresh to the series: a mournful quality that stands apart from the exuberant grotesquerie that had marked the second and third films, “The Purge: Anarchy” and “The Purge: Election Year.” The change in tone might be regarded as a move from the abstract to the actual — from wondering “How bad can it be?” to the stunned realization of how bad it is.

Y'lan Noel in "The First Purge" movie.
Y'lan Noel in "The First Purge" movie. (Annette Brown / Universal Pictures)

Even more than in the previous films, “The First Purge” runs right at the provocative connections regarding the exertion of power upon the underclass and people of color. A protest sign, also used in some of the film’s advertising, says “Being poor is not a crime,” while a protest organizer exhorts that the real purpose of the experiment is to keep black and brown people down.

As the night wears on, government agents purposefully provoke the worst in people, stoking chaos and danger. There is explicit imagery of white supremacists, including Ku Klux Klan robes and hoods, and a deeply unsettling rubber blackface mask worn by a white soldier. A mercenary leader wears a bizarre Gestapo-slash-bondage outfit complete with a shiny overcoat, keeping the film in line with the disturbing topsy-turvy world of the previous entries.

Considering that their reason for existence has largely been unfettered mayhem tinged by a politicized context, the “Purge” movies have made room for some surprisingly strong performances, from Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey and Edwin Hodge in the first film, to Michael K. Williams, Carmen Ejogo, Elizabeth Mitchell, Frank Grillo and Betty Gabriel in the subsequent pictures.

The new film is no exception, as Y’lan Noel (“Insecure”), Lex Scott Davis (“Superfly”) and Joivan Wade (“Doctor Who”) all deliver sympathetic turns as residents fighting to survive the night. Rotimi Paul is unnerving as a drug addict dubbed Skeletor, who turns out to be too weird even for conspiracy theorists to control. Only Marisa Tomei feels slightly under-used as a behavioral scientist who designed the concept of the Purge experiment and sees it misused and abused by nefarious government officials with an agenda of their own.

Lex Scott Davis and Joivan Wade in "The First Purge" movie.
Lex Scott Davis and Joivan Wade in "The First Purge" movie. (Annette Brown / Universal Pictures)

One of the purest strengths of “The First Purge” is that, like the other movies, it doesn’t in any way feel like a polemic. The rhetoric of the NFFA is just passable enough to seem plausible, chiefly conveyed by actor Patch Darragh as a doughy, duplicitous chief of staff who wears his arrogant privilege like another tacky lapel pin. It’s not difficult to decipher where McMurray and DeMonaco’s true allegiances are, but by delivering the story within the framework of genre cinema at its most trashy and garish, the filmmakers convey any message as a bit of rough pleasure amid the kicks and thrills of a movie.

With its talk of “societal catharsis” and “a freeing violence,” the movie is in some ways making the case for itself as a place to attach overwhelming feelings of unease and moral confusion. It is fitting that the end of “The First Purge” features Kendrick Lamar’s song “Alright,” a recent anthem of resistance and resilience.

The film also includes a mid-credits break to advertise an upcoming television spin-off. Yet before that jarring bit of franchise continuity and promotion, there is something unexpectedly stirring in the story’s final moments, with the explicit notion that people can face unimaginable adversity and come out the other side of it, even if just to fight on. That’s an idea that right now feels pretty good, if at times still out of reach.

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‘The First Purge’

Rating: R, for strong disturbing violence throughout, pervasive language, some sexuality and drug use

Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

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Playing: In general release

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