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Thursday, July 12, 2018 12:04 am

First Purge’s vital message obscure

 

In 2013, James DeMonaco’s The Purge seemed like another throwaway entry in the horror genre, a slickly made and at times effective thriller in the Blumhouse Productions mold – cheaply but professionally done, with just enough scares to satisfy fans of the genre. After raking in nearly $90 million on a budget of $3 million, it was a no-brainer to revisit this world – where Americans are allowed to break the law for 12 hours without fear of being arrested – and two sequels followed, both helmed by DeMonaco’s steady hand and increasingly pointed scripts. The fact that The Purge: Anarchy (2014) and The Purge: Election Year (2016) both made over $100 million globally speaks not necessarily to the quality of the films but perhaps more disturbingly to the audiences’ willingness to embrace this concept, as well as the catharsis they provide.

I certainly hope that’s not the case, but, again, I’m not sure of much anymore. I would rather think that viewers are able to identify with the disenfranchised characters in these films, which have increasingly become their focus, unlike the first entry. The latest in the franchise is The First Purge, a prequel that takes us back to the time when this annual bacchanal was first introduced, in a world with far too many similarities to ours for comfort.

Amidst a failing economy, massive unemployment and racial unrest, the electorate has rejected the traditional political parties and rallied around a third party, the New Founding Fathers of America, electing its candidate president. As part of his effort to bring the people of the country together again, the party decides to conduct an experiment concocted by sociologist Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei). She posits that the best way to deal with stress is to give people a chance to release it. As such, she suggests if people were allowed to run amok – murder, rob, rape, whatever – for 12 hours with no ramifications, this would make for a more civilized populace. The powers-that-be agree and decide this should be done on a trial basis on Staten Island. And, to make sure there will be participants, the government offers up $5,000 to anyone who will agree to be out on the streets once the free-for-all begins.

DeMonaco’s script, which contains more than a few scenes that could be cut, draws comparisons to the Trump administration and timely social concerns with broad strokes. The vision of a nation in turmoil is efficiently created through the use of fake new footage, while the presence of large groups of white men in Nazi and KKK regalia violently killing people of color speaks to the rise of intolerance we’re experiencing. It’s a timely message that, ironically and regrettably, has become more accurate as these films have been produced.

It’s unfortunate that DeMonaco only contributed the script this time around, as this is a sloppy and horribly-directed movie. The feature film debut of Gerard McMurray is incapable of constructing an action sequence that’s comprehensible. The camera is never still, moving without reason, focusing on nothing, which, coupled with a rapid-fire editing pattern, produces nothing but visual chaos. This approach generates nothing but headaches, and that paired with (at times) an all-too-deliberate pace makes for a repetitious and tedious exercise.

The fine work from Lex Scott Davis as the activist Nya and Y’lan Noel as the local drug kingpin turned protector Dmitri provides some respite, yet McMurray’s approach undercuts their efforts. This is a shame, as The First Purge’s theme is one that should be front and center, now more than ever. Unfortunately, its message is obscured by poor craftsmanship and cheap sensationalism.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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