‘The First Purge’ Film Review: Slow-Burning Prequel Is Potent Political Allegory

As the nation skids toward totalitarianism, “The Purge” franchise grows ever more plausible

The First Purge
Universal Pictures

“The Purge” may be the only horror movie franchise that gets more plausible with each sequel. Sure, “Friday the 13th” gave us a Jason Voorhees who turned undead, fought Firestarter, transformed into a mustache-fetishizing bodysnatcher, and journeyed into space, but “The Purge” just keeps peeling back layers.

When the series started, the vision of a dystopian future where all crime is legal in the United States for 12 hours seemed like a ridiculous fantasy. Nowadays, it seems only a few steps removed from actual national policy.

“The First Purge,” directed by Gerard McMurray (“Burning Sands”), tells the story of those few steps. The film is a prequel and opens with news footage that we all recognize, of white supremacists in the streets, economic strife, and a nation wholly divided. By the time a conservative president takes the podium and declares, “The American Dream is dead. We will do whatever it takes to let you dream again,” the point is made effectively: This is a film that is set in the future, and the future is tomorrow.

The American government, led by a splinter party called The New Founding Fathers, is undergoing what they currently call “The Experiment.” For 12 hours, all crime on Staten Island will be legalized. The residents are paid $5,000 to stay on the island, and they’re given even more money if they decide to participate in the violent festivities. Advantage is being taken of the economically disadvantaged. The New Founding Fathers ask the individual Purgers, in advance of the holiday, “Are you angry?” and the answer is always “Yes.”

As the clock ticks down to Purge night, we meet our protagonists. Nya (Lex Scott Davis, “Superfly”) is an ex-gang member trying to steer her brother Isaiah (Jovian Wade, “EastEnders”) along the path of the straight and narrow. Nya’s ex-boyfriend Dmitiri (Y’lan Noel, “Insecure”) is a powerful local drug kingpin. They’re all skeptical of The Purge, and they all hope the experiment fails and that life can go back to normal.

When the experiment begins, only a few mentally ill individuals — like a cartoonishly evil man called “Skeletor” (Rotimi Paul, “Mapplethorpe”) — take to the streets and start killing people. The majority of the Staten Island populace either stays indoors or simply parties harder than ever before. For one couple, suspension of the law just means an excuse to get away with public sex.

It’s such a poor turnout that the future of the experiment is imperiled. Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei), the brains behind the operation, seems genuinely surprised that non-white people aren’t desperate to kill each other. Of course, she phrases it more academically: “This socioeconomic group is not behaving the way I expected.”

Eventually, The New Founding Fathers unleash groups of white mercenaries dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes, Nazi uniforms and racist “blackface” masks to commit mass murder. “The Purge” has never been subtle before, and it doesn’t start now: McMurray’s film argues that institutionalized violence only appeals to social classes who already have power. Strip away the propaganda, and The Purge is nothing more than thinly-disguised genocide.

It’s a severe and potent political allegory, but the problem with making a movie about the least eventful Purge is that you’re making a movie about the least eventful Purge. A lot of “The First Purge” involves the creators of this new holiday wondering aloud why nothing is happening yet, and it’s not unreasonable for the audience to wonder the same thing. “The Purge: Anarchy” and “The Purge: Election Year” were wildly eventful mayhem machines, and “The First Purge” de-escalates the violence to a noticeable degree.

Then again, the point of “The First Purge” is that society isn’t actually on board with all this insanity and that it only appeals to the mentally disturbed and to oppressive regimes. It makes total sense that the film only gets more violent over time, as the death squads take to the streets and our heroes have to slaughter wave after wave of militarized racists to survive. “The First Purge” completely earns its action-packed and rousing finale, but getting there certainly takes a while.

“The First Purge” may have toned down the insanity, but as the most political ongoing horror franchise, this series is only getting more interesting. The previous film, “Election Year,” ended with a Hillary Clinton-type winning the presidency, and the end of The Purge seemed nigh; then the real-life political tide turned, and now it’s even more topical than ever. There are many who have argued that America is tipping towards totalitarianism, and a fictionalized depiction of the final step into true dystopian horror is fascinating and relevant. That’s what makes it terrifying.

“The Purge” is anything but cathartic. It may indeed be the most damning political allegory in our popular culture. But as cynical as “The First Purge” is about where we’re going, it’s also a healthy reminder that for many, fighting against an oppressive institution is already a way of life. And the fight goes on.