Ah, the Fourth of July. It’s a time for cookouts in the backyard, fireworks in the park, and Purge movies at the theater. This year’s The First Purge is the fourth film in franchise and serves as a prequel to the entire series. The film follows the events of, you guessed it, the very first Purge.
In the wake of an economic collapse and mass social upheaval, America has fallen under the sway of “The New Founding Fathers”. This NRA backed political party of theocrats promise to make America great again. To do so, they propose a social experiment. For one night on New York’s Staten Island, all crime is legal. Anyone who stays will receive a five thousand dollar paycheck with bonuses thrown in for those who get their hands dirty. The Architect of this experiment is the dispassionate Dr. May Updale, played by academy award winner Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinny, The Wrestler). This social scientist theorizes that folks will all get along if they’re given one opportunity to “purge” themselves of their darkest, violent tendencies. Government Stooge Aldo Sabian (Patch Darragh) agrees, and the first purge commences.
As you might imagine not everybody’s down with this plan, especially the people who live in the testing ground. Gang leader Dmitri (Y’lan Noel) sees the experiment as just another excuse for the stupid to misbehave. His ex-l0ver turned community activist Nya sees it as a threat to the fabric of their neighborhood and the entire country’s humanity. Nya‘s Purge curious brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade) thinks there just might be something to this whole state sanctioned violence thing. Each of our principle players make plans to weather out the experiment but when the sirens blare and the first purge begins, things go south fast. It’ll take all of their smarts, guts, and a whole lot of bullets to survive the night.
While The First Purge is written and produced by James DeMonaco ( The Purge, Purge Anarchy ), this is the first film in the franchise not helmed the series creator. Instead, sophomore director Gerard McMurray (Burning Sands) takes the wheel for the prequel. McMurray crafts an admirable addition to the action-horror series, but at times DeMonaco’s absence is notable. In places, The First Purge is noticeably less polished than previous entries but these sections are few and far between.
Watching the Purge franchise evolve has been a fascinating experience. What started off as a middle-of-the-road home invasion flick with a twilight zone twist has evolved into a series built upon civil upheaveal and social unrest. It’s a bit of a cliche in horror movies these days that someone inevitably points out “The true monster is man!”. That’s all fine and dandy, but The Purge films take a different approach. Instead of Man, the true monster is systematic oppression by a racist government that sees the lives of the disenfranchised as disposable. Sure, masked psychos running around with machetes are bad, but the political system that enables this madness is worse.
The First Purge handles this political commentary with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The film’s infamous poster laid all of its cards on the table before the film had even come out. In the world of The Purge the government not only wants to get you, they’re sending death squads of Klansmen to do the job. If that sounds a little heavy, don’t worry. This is a Purge film after all.
“The film’s final act is an action packed thrill ride that’ll make you think of Die Hard one minute and Assault of Precinct 13 the next.”
While The First Purge‘s body count is significantly lower than its predecessors, it still packs a punch. Necks are snapped, throats are cut, and white supremacists get their heads blown off. The film’s final act is an action packed thrill ride that’ll make you think of Die Hard one minute and Assault of Precinct 13 the next. I can’t say enough about Y’lan Noel’s (Insecure, The Hustle) star-making performance as Dmitri. The gang leader knows his way around an assault rifle. When it comes time to take on the Klansmen and wannabe Nazis who show up to later in the film, he makes ruthless violence look good.
While the film looks as stylized as ever, it sounds even better. Composer Kevin Lax (Life on The Line, The Walking Dead) has crafted a score that perfectly lines up with the film’s B-Movie sensibilities. It’s moody and synth heavy, sounding at times like a modern take on a John Carpenter score. It walks the line between pulse pounding action and atmospheric dread exceptionally well, which is what you want from an action horror score!
While The First Purge has a lot of strong points, originality isn’t one of them. For a prequel set long before the main films, it’s story sticks pretty closely to the series formula. Much of the first act is devoted to setting up its players and the Purge as a concept. When the horns blare and the festivities get started, the film retreads many of the same plot beats as The Purge: Election Year and The Purge: Anarchy before it. With the exception of Noel, the film’s cast is largely forgettable.
Don’t get me wrong, Lex Scott Davis (Superfly, Training Day), Joivan Wade (The Weekend, EastEnders), Luna Lauren Velez (Dexter, How To Get Away With Murder), and Mugga (Orange Is The New Black, Precious) all deliver fine performances. But there just wasn’t a whole lot for their characters to do.
“The First Purge is a political horror movie, one that isn’t afraid to go for the throat.”
Where the film truly shines are the small details. There are so many little things that just work. In order to record their night of violence, Purge participants are given contact lens cameras. These have the added the added bonus of turning their eyes into Neon spotlights. That eerie effect plays extremely well in the film’s dark sets. Another element the film nails is it’s use of masks.
When the death squads arrive to exterminate Staten Island, they come decked out in full regalia. But instead of wearing the faces of monsters, each squad member is adorned in a lightly modified blackface mask. No one comments on it in the film. The average audience member might not even catch it. But hot damn, if that’s not a stroke of horror genius I don’t know what is.
The First Purge is a political horror movie, one that isn’t afraid to go for the throat. In a time where every day politics seem more like a horror movie than reality, sometimes that’s all you need.