'The First Purge' Review: A Fiery But Disappointing Prequel

When I saw The Purge: Anarchy in 2014, it shook me so badly that I genuinely feared I was going to be "purged" while walking back to my friend's car in the movie theater parking lot. The franchise, which posits a future in which all crime is legal for 12 hours out of every year for reasons that have slowly been spun into clarity, had me hooked. Its approach to horror — socially and politically conscious horror, as it were — was effective, and if the third installment in the series, 2016's The Purge: Election Year was a bit more blunt in its political underpinnings, it made up for it in how it spun the American political climate into a Grand Guignol spectacle. As such, I had high hopes for The First Purge.

The good news is that the film, directed by Gerard McMurray, still has some vestiges of what made Anarchy and Election Year so frightening. The first few moments of the Purge are as unsettling as ever, as the horn signaling the start of the night blares out over Staten Island. From there, McMurray takes The First Purge into more conventional horror territory, including a superb bit involving glowing contact lenses that make their wearers look like ghosts, if not completely demonic, and a penchant for extreme close-ups that are rattling and disorienting in a way that works for the film. The bad news is that that grace is otherwise scarce.

As suggested by the title, The First Purge is a prequel explaining the origins of the Purge. In what is ostensibly an attempt to decrease the crime rate for the rest of the year as well as a swing at population control, the NFFA (New Founding Fathers of America, using blatantly Trump-ian language), decide to run a test Purge on Staten Island. But, as we know from the previous Purge films, there's a more insidious reason as to why the Purge is being put into effect. It isn't a chance for people to vent their aggression as much as it is a cover-up for government death squads to massacre those in lower income brackets and cut back how much has to be paid in government aid.

What with the way that privilege plays into the overall narrative (it doesn't feel like an accident that all of the villains are rich, old white men), the franchise is the rare Hollywood property that has put people of color front and center. The government-sanctioned Purgers are cops and Klan members (or, in a couple of instances, just dressed up to look like them) in obvious jabs at the state of American politics, with the notion of "purity" factoring more than once into politicians' praise of the Purge; in reaction, communities come together in order to protect themselves, and birth underground radical factions with imagery drawn straight from the Black Panther Party.

Maybe it was inevitable that the franchise would circle around so far that it'd begin to eat its own tail. There no longer seems to be a point or message to be conveyed by the violence that the Purge incites; an early thread about how crime doesn't pay is abandoned as the criminals in question turn out to be heroes, rolling out as the neighborhood's defense squad without circling back to the fact that the drugs they deal are detrimental to the community. (It doesn't help that some of the characters are caricatures and stereotypes, ranging from cartoonish drug addict to sassy friend.) It's also strange to watch the film vacillate between damning violence against these people, and then turning around to condone — or even cheer — violence against others. The point about inequality, or at least any sense of nuance within it, gets lost in the mix.

The performances are unfortunately also hampered by the clunkiness of the script. (It's never a good sign when lines meant to come across as deep and thoughtful prompt incredulous laughs from the audience.) Of everyone in the cast, Y'Lan Noel (terrific on Insecure) fares the best as drug kingpin Dmitri, salvaging his part through sheer charisma and a final Rambo-esque sequence. Joivan Wade is great, too, as most of the psychological nightmare that is Purge night is reflected on his features, but the rest of the movie doesn't manage quite as well. As it turns out, "jack of all trades, master of none" is an adage that works to describe movies just as well as people.

With that in mind, I'm interested to see how the franchise proceeds. It's the rare film series that has adapted to fit with the times, and the question seems to be whether or not it's an act that can be sustained. The First Purge would seem to suggest that there's a limit, but I could be wrong. Reactionary cinema isn't necessarily a bad thing, and to quote back some of the series' own parroted rhetoric, it could be great again.

/Film Rating: 4 out of 10