Unlike most horror franchise prequels,The First Purge isn’t unjustifiable. There’s little about the series’ conceit that isn’t clarified in the story or can’t be intuited through familiarity with horror cinema and American history, so why not show how Purging became a tradition as American as apple pie? There’s not much to give away or ruin through over-explaining.
The bar isn’t particularly high, which works for and against the film. Directed by Gerard McMurray (Burning Sands), The First Purge goes exactly where the other Purge movies have dared to go: batshit insane. Back in 2013, the idea that every American had it in them to don dollar store American Psycho costumes and go on government-sanctioned killing sprees felt charitable at best. In 2018 that aesthetic, having expanded beyond high society brats in slick business suits to include lunatics wearing DIY horror-kink outfits made from bondage gear and cheap Halloween masks, nearly feels quaint, genre fiction that no longer reads as fictional. (Honestly, the announcement of a real-life Purge would at this point feel like a natural extension of government policies currently in practice.)
Still, the basic Purge formula offers self-reflection couched in grisly violence: The annual Purge commences, people murder each other, and our morally inclined heroes must escape the crossfire while stemming the tide of bloodshed. There’s exposition and catchup for audiences who’ve missed out on the last three films, too. In alternate present day America, crime is off the charts and the country is on fire. That’s the narrative sold by the ultra-conservative third political party known as the New Founding Fathers of America (or, mercifully, NFFA for short). Their plan to save the U.S. after taking it over is a pseudo-science experiment: Let people freely express their pent-up rage through a range of transgressions, from petty theft to taking life, for one night a year, crime goes down across the country for the other 364 nights.
The First Purge opens hours before that experiment begins, bouncing back and forth between Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and Isaiah (Joivan Wade), siblings living in dilapidated quarters in the Park Hill Apartments, located in Staten Island’s Clifton neighborhood, and Dmitri (Y’Lan Noel), Nya’s ex and Park Hill’s big dog drug lord. All three of them are prepping for the Purge’s trial run as government agents tempt the poor with cash payments for joining in mayhem: Nya protests in the streets, Dmitri preps his foot soldiers for siege, and Isaiah prepares to hunt down the film’s unflatteringly rendered Big Bad, Skeletor (Romiti Paul).
It’s in the build-up where the film struggles. McMurray takes too long to get to the Purge section of the film, and that pacing is worsened by the after school special level of drama of the script (provided by series creator James DeMonaco, here serving as writer and producer): It’s laid on too thick, especially concerning Isaiah, a good kid everyone knows is capable of more than selling smack. Worse, the characters are largely kept at a distance from the fracas. They’re observers more than participants, and by consequence chunks of the film feel inert, no more so than when McMurray and DeMonaco take us behind the scenes at the NFFA, where regime lackey Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh) and experiment mastermind Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei) wring their hands over the meager initial body count. Apparently we’re supposed to care that Updale’s predictions are off, but the subplot is so thin you can feel a breeze blow through it. (Besides, making any good faith argument in favor of the Purge is just straight-up unsavory.)
McMurray takes the subject matter seriously, but he doesn’t add to the franchise’s thoughts on how legalized murder might impact economically and socially disenfranchised groups in America more than advantaged groups (e.g., white people). Simply presenting these characters going about their business before Park Hill turns into an abattoir, without commenting on their circumstances, would say everything implicitly that the screenplay says explicitly. It’s not all for naught: McMurray makes great use of Noel’s physicality, treating him as a hybrid of Bruce Willis and Iko Uwais, fighting government goons with tactical chicanery and badassery. There’s even a touch of positive humanity here—it turns out not everybody’s nursing a latent homicidal streak! Most folks engage in the Purge at first by throwing crazy block parties or screwing in public. (It takes intervention by the NFFA for havoc to unleash.) Score one for the American public.
At its best The First Purge functions like a much-reduced Purge movie retread. It’s not that it’s bad, really. It’s that we’ve seen this before. Both The Purge: Anarchy and The Purge: Election year established urban cat-and-mouse games as de rigueur for the franchise (and frankly, the place the latter film left off feels more urgent as a follow-up chapter than a simple retrospective). In showing us America before America knew how to Purge, The First Purge sticks to that same blueprint when it should have diverged from it.
Director: Gerard McMurray
Writer: James DeMonaco
Starring: Y’Lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis, Joivan Wade, Luna Lauren Velez, Marisa Tomei, Patch Darragh, Romiti Paul
Release Date: Jul 4, 2018
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.