The First Purge Is a Messy, Violent Thriller for a Messy, Violent Nation

Lex Scott Davis and Jovian Wade in The First Purge
The First Purge. Annette Brown

The first Purge film was a largely unexceptional instance of that most bourgeois of movie genres: the home-invasion thriller. Starring Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey as a white suburban couple with two children and a house big enough for killers to hide themselves in, the 2013 horror film asked viewers to identify with the foursome indoors while the Purge, a 12-hour suspension of the rule of law, came knocking bloodily at their door. The hit franchise, which is releasing its fourth installment on July Fourth and will expand into a 10-episode limited TV series this fall, began with a small subversion of its siege-mentality subgenre: Hawke’s paterfamilias is ultimately punished for enriching himself by selling subpar home-security systems, demand for which skyrocketed after the Purge’s arrival. (He, the profiteer, is the only member of his family who dies.) Since then, the Purge films have gotten increasingly and more explicitly political about race and class, culminating with the openly didactic social critiques of the new, confusingly titled The First Purge. By exposing on the top-down class-warfare origins of the annual event, the prequel elaborates on the series’ earnest political commentary—and exposes its limits, as well.

Trapped in franchise creator James DeMonaco’s narrow vision of action horror, the Purge movies are never fully satisfying in their curiously constrained depiction of America’s unleashed id; if there are characters in this universe tempted by transgressions that aren’t creative murder, we rarely see them. But the conceit of the Purge itself is brilliant, a capacious metaphor that channels elements of the past, anxieties about the future, and the possibilities of the present. (Unsolved murders continue to fuel the true-crime genre, while sexual assault has always been too infrequently reported, let alone penalized within the justice system.)

DeMonaco, who wrote and directed the first three Purge pictures and penned the prequel (while handing over helming duties to a sloppier Gerald McMurray) has thoughtfully expanded the extensive Purge mythology in ways that underscore how unrestrained violence tends to reinforce racial, class, and gender hierarchies. In 2014’s The Purge: Anarchy, a mother and daughter are threatened with rape, while a terminally ill grandfather of color is one of many who sell themselves so wealthy families can exercise their right to Purge in the safety of their own homes.

The Purge: Election Year saw the U.S. become a destination for murder tourism, while insurance companies jacked up Purge Night insurance rates so high that small-business owners were forced to fend for the sources of their livelihoods by themselves. The Purge is sold by the government to participants as an individual cleanse, on the theory that catharsis should follow aggression, but the franchise has bleated increasingly louder that the event’s true purpose is to cull the population of the poor.

The First Purge, which follows the black and Latino residents of a Staten Island housing project, is the first installment in the series to feature a predominant cast of color and no sympathetic middle- or upper-class characters. A pilot-program Purge is to take place only in that borough under the auspices of the ruling third party, the far-right, NRA-affiliated, and seemingly theocratic New Founding Fathers of America (somehow paler and angrier than the current GOP). The NFFA hands out $5,000 to anyone economically desperate enough to risk their life by staying on the island—with the promise of more if they actively participate—and party henchmen sit back on Purge Night, expecting a Shining-esque flood of blood to rush out of the housing projects. When no such deluge arrives, the NFFA sends out mercenaries, many in masks and uniforms evoking the Nazis, the Klan, and blackface minstrelsy to ensure the Purge’s “success.” A church massacre tastelessly recalls the Charleston mass shooting, but The First Purge largely succeeds in capturing the bewilderment many of us are feeling about America these days, a sense of lostness crystallized by a line in Election Year: “How the hell did it get to this?” (That movie’s convenient but largely correct answer: “Goddamn conniving, duplicitous, crooked, cock-sucking politicians.”) Even more timely is the NFF’s shrugging acceptance of mass violence. I’d be hard-pressed to think of another movie this year that better conveys the disbelief that this what America has come to.

The First Purge is sprinkled with allusions to the current political crisis: Income inequality and the opioid epidemic are name-checked, and its community-activist heroine, Nya (Lex Scott Davis), taunts one would-be Purger by calling him a “pussy-grabber.” All of this makes The Purge movies clever but not quite smart or thought-through. In Anarchy, several years of Purging has dropped unemployment below 5 percent, few live below the poverty line, and crime is close to nonexistent—a state of affairs that suggests maybe the poor really were the problem after all. The insinuation that violent impulses could be curbed by an annual ritual of bloodletting is psychologically facile. And though the series has been largely celebrated for the diversity of its casts, it’s a bit irritating that the only people who thus far afforded the opportunity to feel and act on their trauma are the grieving white characters, most notably Frank Grillo’s vigilante Leo Barnes in Anarchy and Elizabeth Mitchell’s Sen. Charlie Roan in Election Year—especially since the bulk of Purge-related suffering is borne by black and brown victims and their loved ones. Like too many expressions of rage, The Purge is powerful but its articulation is careless.