The Purge franchise fears no change. The first film was a home invasion thriller with a sociopolitical bent, its follow-up an 80s throwback thriller, and the third a gonzo political exploitation actioner. And somehow, they all got better each time. The fourth film in the series marks one of the more drastic evolutions in the series, no longer directed by James DeMonaco (although he does return to write) and going back in time to depict the very first Purge. Aptly titled, director Gerard McMurray’s The First Purge is the most refined Purge flick. Combining the strengths of all the previous films, it would almost make a fine capstone to the saga.
Really, it should’ve been. The First Purge startles in how little the problems of the prior films rear their head. Namely in the storytelling department. The year is 2017. The New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA), in partnership with sociologist May Updale (Marisa Tomei), announce an experiment where, on Staten Island, all crimes will be legal for a period of 12 hours. Those who volunteer will receive a handsome amount of pay. Furthermore, they’ll be outfitted with slick Halloween costume-ready contact lenses to capture the chaos.
Focusing on the downtrodden is where these movies find their more compelling moments. The First Purge takes notice, centering the story squarely on those struggling in Staten Island, particularly Black Americans. Dmitri (Y’Lan Noel) makes a business for himself a drug kingpin, hoping to use the inaugural Purge to move product. Nya (Lex Scott Davis) attempts to rise above the depths most sink to in order to survive in their environment. Her little brother, Isiah (Jovian Wade), plans to take down a violent junkie who has been threatening him.
Let’s talk about said junkie for a second. Skeletor (Rotimi Paul) is a force of malevolence. A tornado of hatred that represents everything “The Purge” was created to expel. Yet he’s an anomaly. The first to purge. As we see in the introductory scene, the basis on which the whole experiment has been devised. He’s the type of person the NFFA uses to manufacture consent for such an event while they swoop in and murder the impoverished.
Politically, The First Purge is loud and clear. Paired with McMurray’s gritty direction and deeply human performances, DeMonaco’s writing has never quite hit home like this. The Purge was never supposed to be about the ambiguity of whether it was ethical or not. Of course, it’s not. The First Purge spends a great deal showing just how people like the NFFA would rather destroy communities to help statistics rather than helping the actual people. Something that is very much in the conversation today.
Now, The First Purge does have to hit its quota of action and horror moments. Some of these, such as a “Purge Party” gone horribly wrong exemplify why this franchise is such a cultural touchstone. Others are amusing, though totally forgettable, flashes in the pan. Thankfully, The First Purge goes the extra mile in its third act, marrying the action with the themes. In a sequence that can only be described as “American The Raid“, the crew fight back against their oppressors who are trying to wipe out an entire building. It’s a glorious, bone-crunching display of catharsis.
The First Purge and The Purge: Election Year together both form a fitting mission statement for the series. Although people like the NFFA will always exist, so will those who will stand up to them. The oppressed will not be voiceless. As big of money makers as they are, these movies have utilized their platform for something important. Whether the message works or not is up to the viewer. But it’s saying something. In an age where most horror franchises “avoid politics” altogether, The First Purge is fearless. That counts for a whole hell of a lot. – James Preston Poole
The First Purge is now available on home video and Digital HD.