How did we get here? That’s something I have honestly asked myself nearly every single day over the last two years, and it’s a question that The First Purge poses as well – after three movies centered around the violence that people are willing to perpetuate against each other in the name of “freedom,” just how did all of the madness start in the first place? The answers might seem pretty obvious, but The First Purge director Gerard McMurray delivers up a gritty and sometimes surprising exploration of the genesis of the New Founding Fathers of America and how they managed to get an entire nation to go along with the idea of “The Purge” in the first place.
Writer James DeMonaco (who has been the driving force behind The Purge franchise through all four films) sets this prequel on Staten Island, where the NFFA, who has recently taken over the White House, have decided to hold a social experiment. They are legalizing crime for 12 hours, are asking the residents of the area to participate, and are even encouraging them to sign up for the trial by using cash stipends, which many folks are in desperate need of. Right in the middle of this landmark test of morality is the well-meaning NFFA protestor Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and her younger brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade), a prominent crime lord named Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), and the sassy and scrappy Dolores (Mugga) who isn’t going down without a fight.
Observing the experiment’s potential chaos on that fateful evening are the NFFA Chief of Staff (Patch Darragh) and Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei), who helped construct the trial. It’s their job to watch over the Staten Island residents, and decide whether or not “The Purge” is something that should be instituted on a long-term basis. And as you may have guessed, things aren’t exactly on the up-and-up, and we learn the truth behind the completely evil and devastatingly demented event at the heart of the Purge film series. While the previous movies may have left audiences with some glimmers of hope, The First Purge has a bit of a nasty streak to it, especially since we ultimately know where everything is heading after this very first “experiment.”
If you’re somehow expecting The First Purge not to be a scathing, politically-driven takedown about the current state of affairs in the world today, then you’ve probably been living under a rock, and perhaps this isn’t the movie for you. Because ever since the very beginning, DeMonaco has used these films as his way of exploring the ills of modern society in a variety of ways, and his latest script is easily his most vital, and blisteringly bleak examination of society’s woes to date. That being said, The First Purge is also probably the weakest story of the bunch, with DeMonaco’s script suffering from a lack of focus and a few eye-rolling exchanges that carry the emotional weight of a lead balloon.
But what The First Purge lacks in subtlety, it more than makes up for with McMurray’s direction, as he gives us several sequences of pure terror that more than tip their hats to the horror genre (Purge participants wear these nifty contact lenses that give off an eerie glow, so in certain darker scenes, they look like monsters peeking out everywhere), then amps up the action for his breathtakingly ambitious finale that is easily the highlight of the entire film. A lot of that comes from the efforts of cinematographer Anastas N. Michos, who does a beautiful job of capturing the madness and mayhem in The First Purge, and his talents add so much to the film. Both Noel and Davis deliver up strong performances in The First Purge too, and we also get some memorable work from Steve Harris and Mo McRae who also get a few moments to shine in their supporting roles as well.
The evolution of The Purge movies is one of the most interesting and fascinating to follow, and I don’t think there’s a current genre franchise that is more essential than this one. What began as a modest home invasion story has evolved into something much bigger and thought-provoking than I could have ever imagined, and The First Purge is another compelling (albeit clunky) examination of just how messed up our culture has become. For anyone who has been left feeling frustrated by what’s going on in America over the last several years, The First Purge offers up the perfect way to (wait for it) purge what might be ailing you these days.
Movie Score: 3/5