Turning on the news over the past year and a bit has felt a little like wandering into an alternate reality, given the sights and sounds coming from the far West, where elements of the far Right have shockingly become embraced and normalised.
It’s not a very pleasant reality to be living with – but then, this level of uncomfortable actuality has given The First Purge (Cert 18, 97 mins) an underlying subtext and energy that one can only imagine was fully intentioned.
To date, the Purge franchise has provided a mixed bag of middling films, with their shared central premise (that of The Purge: an annual 12-hour period of nationwide chaos, murder and mayhem when anything is legal and no police will respond) providing some snide social commentary.
However, The First Purge, while far from the first Purge film, cuts the closest to the bone yet as it delivers an inevitable origins story, explaining how The Purge and Purging became an ordinary, normal part of American life.
In doing so, this prequel also taps into the current dark undercurrents swirling through public and political discourse across the pond, gaining a frisson of focus that adds an additional layer of context to dig through.
Everything has a beginning, and Staten Island proves to be the acorn for a particularly twisted tree that soon envelops America, with its rulers – The New Founding Fathers of America – choosing the island as the base for a new social experiment.
People are offered $5,000 to stay on, or go to, the island for a night of mayhem, during which observers will watch and record what happens when there are no laws, and no consequences, for everyone who chooses to stay put.
Handy retina cams (available in this near future setting) and tracking devices provide an up close and personal view of everything that’s going on during this mass social experiment – which is anything but social for the increasingly desperate people caught up in a night of escalating terror.
Throw in drug addicts and dealers, hookers, turf wars, shady operatives and nefarious goings on, and you’re firmly embedded in classic Purge lore, with this film firmly following the bottom of American society.
At this stage, if you’ve seen any of the previous Purge films, you’ll be very familiar with how The First Purge plays out, as it begins to simultaneously set up and tap into the lore and beats that are part of the rest of the franchise.
Stylistically, director Gerard McMurray does a good job of maintaining the look and feel of classic Purge tropes, with everything from visually striking face masks and an almost riotous use of moody colour palettes to the emotionally detached security camera footage of violent Purging all helping to tick the right boxes.
The cast, too (with a welcome supporting turn by Marisa Times) do a decent job of conveying their characters’ descent into hunter and hunted roles, as Staten Island plummets into lawlessness as the night wears on.
However, it’s the underlying tone that potentially elevates The First Purge beyond its B-movie schlock status.
Not for nothing are some of the poorest people in America chosen to be the fodder for the experiment, with money dangled like bait to lure and keep desperate people somewhere where their violent death or torture could be seconds away.
Indeed, this becomes a more overt story thread later in the film, when a secondary storyline gains a tighter focus on the rich versus the poor, basically establishing The Purge’s potential ‘usefulness’ for socioeconomic cleansing to whittle down ‘the undesirables’ at the bottom of society.
Given current American events and attitudes over the past 18 months, Purging feels like it’s taken a couple of determined steps towards reality, which earns The First Purge at least one extra point in its final score.