'First Purge' Review: It May Be the Most Politically Charged Movie of 2018
Most prequels suck, and that goes double for horror movie prequels. As tempting as it might be to see where things all began, the profit-driven results Hollywood pumps out usually end up dragging the entire series down with them. But The First Purge manages to buck that trend by leaning hard into the political message of 2016’s The Purge: Election Year. In the process, it becomes more than just a good (or maybe even great) horror flick. More than just a fun, gory experience, The First Purge might just be the most politically charged movie of 2018.
Directed by Gerard McMurray and written by James DeMonaco — the Brooklyn and Staten Island native who wrote and directed all three previous Purge movies — The First Purge is set just before and during the grand, horrific experiment that establishes a yearly purge where American citizens can kill, steal, and break the law without consequence. The New Founding Fathers of America, a nationalist political party with eerie similarities to President Donald Trump’s GOP, have already seized control of the US government. Now, they just need a solution for the social and economic unrest that helped sweep them into power. A purge, if you will.
Unlike previous films where the Purge had already been established as 12 hours of violent chaos nationwide, this movie chronicles the first attempt to test out the concept on a smaller scale. It’s set entirely on Staten Island, where a mostly black population is paid $5,000 each to stay put with the promise of extra money if they actively participate.
We already know that the Purge will be a “success” — this is a prequel after all. What we don’t know is how it happened, and that’s where The First Purge really shines. By turning an origin story into a deeply relevant political allegory, the movie manages to be way more than just another horror prequel.
Warning: Mild spoilers for The First Purge are ahead.
The First Purge never tries to hide its political message, repeatedly demonstrating how the country’s rich, white leadership systematically oppresses the minority underclass while also blaming them for society’s problems. One of the movie’s first scenes shows a group of protesters chanting angrily as participants file into a government facility to claim their pre-Purge payment. Outside, a TV journalist played by Van Jones (the real-life Obama adviser turned CNN commentator) questions a New Founding Fathers leader but fails to get much of an answer. It’s a powerful echo of Obama’s own feckless resistance to Trump’s presidency and our own relaxed response to encroaching fascism in America today.
From this early point onward, The First Purge rarely lets up. In a particularly haunting scene, a bloodied black man crawls across an empty baseball diamond towards first base while a group of menacing police officers (or killers disguised as cops) surround him. The scoreboard blares “PARTICIPATE,” and the camera zooms out to emphasize the not-so-subtle message behind showing a defenseless African American being brutally, but legally, murdered by a swarm of cops.
In another jarring moment, the female lead (played with passion by Lex Scott Davis) gets attacked by a literal “pussy grabber” when a Purger pops out from their hiding spot in a sewer grate. In a movie full of Trump allusions, it doesn’t get more direct than that.
The big twist comes when we learn that the New Founding Fathers have stacked the deck against Staten Island’s local Purge participants. Worried that these low-income test subjects might not actually want to kill each other, the government enlists a coalition of neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, and Russian mercenaries to amp up the violence and ensure that the first Purge is a success. Eventually, they even send in the military (led by a literal leather-clad Nazi) to take out any remaining survivors.
Despite the intensely pessimistic worldview of The First Purge, the film ends with a message of hope — or at least one of vengeance. It’s thrilling to watch gang leader turned neighborhood savior Dmitri (Y’lan Noel, Insecure) take out waves of enemies in the film’s climax, and it’s particularly cathartic to watch him brutally murder a soldier/mercenary wearing a blackface mask over his pale skin and blonde hair. It’s a powerful bit of wish fulfillment in a world where the reverse scenario feels increasingly common and, worse, socially acceptable.
As the dust settles and the first Purge comes to an end, the remaining survivors make their way out into the morning light while the New Founding Fathers lay the groundwork for a nationwide Purge. It’s a dark note to end on, but the message is clear: Even if the world is fucked, it’s still worth fighting for.
The First Purge hits theaters on July 4.