The Purge movies have always been about the 1% versus the 99, the privileged against the underprivileged–the rich trying to exterminate the poor by pitting them against one another while sitting safe in fortified ivory towers. In the previous three movies, that theme served as the core, beneath a veneer of fantastically stylized violence, with gangs of roving murderers draping their cars with Christmas lights and donning exaggerated masks over preppy school uniforms. In The First Purge, that thin surface of fantasy is gone, leaving only a crude, gratuitous, vaguely exploitative movie about the government openly and mercilessly exterminating poor people.
Like The Purge: Anarchy, the second in the series, The First Purge wants to suggest that, with scattered exceptions, normal people aren’t inherently violent enough to Purge. They need a push, and that shove comes from the New Founding Fathers of America, the government that, in this movie, just recently emerged as the third option in America’s two party system and seized power from Republicans and Democrats alike. The First Purge explains how the NFFA was able to pull it off: Much like the politicians in power today, they exploited people’s fear. The movie spends an opening montage citing a grab bag of real world social unrest, from the Black Lives Matter movement to a housing crisis worse than 2008’s.
Now, it’s time for an “experiment” that Marisa Tomei’s Dr. Updale, a scientist working with the NFFA, promises will give the American people the outlet they need for all their hate, anger, and aggression. There’s an unintentionally silly scene late in the movie when Updale, seeing the actual results of her “experiment,” utters dramatically, “What have I done?” It’s unclear what results she was expecting from this whole thing.
The movie centers on a handful of characters on New York’s Staten Island, the isolated site of this first, experimental Purge. (Through their public representative Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh), the government issues some hazy explanation about the island’s demographics being representative of the country as a whole, but behind closed doors the NFFA readily admit they just want to kill poor people.)
Dmitri (Y’lan Noel) is a drug kingpin who wants to keep his neighborhood safe while protecting his product and his business. Nya (Lex Scott Davis) is his ex-girlfriend, a conscientious protestor who opposes the experiment. Her little brother, Isaiah (Joivan Wade), was supposed to get off the island, but secretly stayed behind to get revenge on Skeletor (Rotimi Paul), a violent drug addict who attacked and humiliated him. These characters and those surrounding them–every single person the movie follows during the experiment–are non-white, while almost everyone actually causing violence during the Purge is white.
Early on, there are isolated scenes of NFFA officials interviewing Staten Islanders about their pent up rage, then offering them monetary compensation for remaining on the island and actively participating. The government implants them with tracking devices and issues them high tech contact lenses that will record the night’s events so the results can be broadcast to the world. Glowing red, green, or blue in the darkness, these contacts are one of the movie’s only creative aesthetic liberties, although they often verge on looking silly.
But when the would-be Purgers throw block parties instead of tearing one another apart, the NFFA sends in militaristic bands of mercenaries dressed in the regalia of the KKK, white supremacist biker gangs, and masked, Nazi-like soldiers. At times, The First Purge is hard to watch, and not in the fun way that horror movies are supposed to make you hide behind splayed fingers. Whatever thin veil of subtlety this series ever possessed is gone from this movie, murdered by flocks of heavily armed drones the New Founding Fathers of America sent to make sure the citizens of Staten Island “participated” in the experiment.
The First Purge doesn’t hesitate to mirror real world events, and never to its benefit. At one point, off screen (thankfully), a group of white mercenaries disguised as a biker gang guns down dozens of black, hispanic, and Asian people huddling for safety in a church–something that more or less happened in real life just three years ago. Later, white soldiers rampage through a towering housing project, systematically, inhumanly slaughtering the hundreds of non-white people inside, room by room and floor by floor. There were points in The First Purge I could have been watching last year’s Detroit, a movie about the real life terror inflicted on black people by white cops during Detroit’s 1967 12th Street Riot. That’s not imagery you want to evoke lightly, yet The First Purge uses it readily, in between scenes of cackling homeless ladies setting traps in alleyways and Dmitri’s gang members eagerly arming themselves to the teeth.
When Nya gets her foot caught in a trap and attackers burst from a grate nearby, hands scrabble furiously at her crotch. Running away, she yells behind her, “P***y grabbing motherf***er!” Somehow, despite being completely out of character, that line is predictable, too. It’s the exact kind of low-hanging fruit this movie hungrily plucks, scene after scene.
There’s nothing fun or thrilling about watching white people dressed up as real world hate groups efficiently murdering innocent victims. The Purge series’ veneer of fantasy is gone. It’s too on the nose, and it knows it. That The First Purge is a prequel means the people we see suffering in it are doomed to at least another 25 years of annual violence and oppression, a fact you’ll be acutely aware of as the dawn breaks on the first experiment, the few survivors limp down the street, and the tastelessly summoned Kendrick Lamar song “Alright” (“Alls my life I had to fight…”) thumps into life over your theater’s speakers.
2016’s The Purge: Election Year ended on a hopeful note. That movie tried to mirror the real world too, but the real life politics it mimicked turned out much differently than the film’s. In 2018, we could have used a movie where, for once, the good guys won. The fact that series creator James DeMonaco, who’s written all four entries and directed the three before this, chose to give us a prequel instead is empirical evidence that he may be out of good ideas.
|The Good||The Bad|
|Some stylish aesthetic choices||Ham-fisted politics|
|Exploits imagery of real world tragedies|
|Cheesy dialogue and inconsistent writing|
|Racially charged violence is disturbing|
|Loses the fantasy veneer of previous entries|