I’ve had zero experience with the Purge franchise until this fourth installment, a prequel arriving in theaters five long years after its source material. I believe I’ve fallen in love. The First Purge is the most fun I’ve had with a pure thriller since the femme cyber-terror pop of Nerve, joining that film’s rarified ranks of genuinely feeling like a thriller of the times. Where Nerve filtered its own nighttime neon thriller textures through a teen girl coming-of-age story, however, The First Purge dares to apply its surface level genre thrills to something much uglier & more politically confrontational. As fun as The First Purge can be as a cartoonishly violent summertime thriller, it’s also a deeply angry movie with a critical eye for American politics, especially regarding the ways police & military reinforce marginalization as determined by race & class. In its advertising, the Purge series has always stressed its participation in subversive political rhetoric; the last film in the franchise was even titled Purge: Election Year. Having never seen a previous installment, though, I can’t say with any certainty if they’ve ever before delivered substantial political commentary beyond lightly satirizing the iconography of the GOP. However, I can report that The First Purge’s own political imagery is far more daring & genuinely distressing than I ever assumed the franchise could be.
As the title indicates, The First Purge details the first-ever Purge Night in an alternate timeline America, which is treated in-film as a socio-political experiment. In case you’re unfamiliar with the series’ unifying conceit, Purge Night is an annual 12-hour period where all crime, including murder, is made temporarily legal. It’s a government-sanctioned tradition supposedly intended as a “societal catharsis,” but more practically functions as targeted population control. It’s no coincidence, then, that the trial run beta test version of Purge Night is staged in the predominately POC neighborhoods of Staten Island. The government exploits Staten Island’s residents’ financial desperation by bribing them to participate in the Purge “experiment,” leaving a wide cross-section of young partiers, old church-goers, power-hungry drug dealers, and community-protective protestors behind to fight for survival in the legal/lethal free-for-all. When Staten Island shrugs off the opportunity to kill their own and instead throw “Purge Parties” to celebrate the incoming cash flow, the government deploys mercenary operatives in disguise to murder the island’s citizens by their own hands, selling the story of the first Purge to the rest of the nation as a resounding success. This influx of militaristic, murderous white men into mostly black neighborhoods is where The First Purge finds its volatile political tension, a conflict it exploits for everything it’s worth.
There’s nothing subtle about The First Purge’s political messaging in its depictions of white government operatives invading helpless, economically wrecked black neighborhoods to thin out the ranks of its own citizenry, nor should there be. We do not live in subtle times. What I didn’t expect, however, was that the film would be willing to push the imagery of its volatile racial politics to the extremes it achieves as the violence reaches its third act crescendo. White militants disguise their identity with masks & costumes to obscure the government’s involvement in the massacre. This starts traditionally enough with spooky Halloween garb meant to paralyze their victims with fear. As the clear racial divisions between combatants fully comes into focus, however, the costuming’s politically charged imagery escalates so that the white militants are dressed in Nazi uniforms, KKK robes, and blackface. There might have been a time, even in recent memory, where that racist iconography may have felt like a bit much, but after Trump’s election and last year’s disastrous, racist demonstrations in Charlottesville, it feels like a nauseatingly accurate portrait of where America’s politics are seated in the late 2010s. The film’s fictional political party The New Founding Fathers falls just short of adopting “Make America Great Again” as a campaign slogan. The threat of sexual assault on Purge Night is derided as “pussy-grabbing.” Billboards advertise assault rifles with the casual attitude they’d use to advertise groceries. The political lines are clearly dawn in the text, often in its visual language, and there’s immense value to that disregard for subtlety. What’s most upsetting about the film’s rampant, over-the-top violence is the way it’s only a mild exaggeration of the violence in our current national reality.
Part of the reason I had little interest in the original Purge movie was that it was framed as a home invasion story, one where a macho protector father figure has to save his family from the moral decay of the world outside. The First Purge explodes that premise in two thrilling ways: it dares to venture outside to fully exploit the widespread mayhem indicated by its conceit and it shifts the guilt of the violence from marginalized, desperate people to the forces that keep them in place. I’m not sure the world needs another story about a white father figure with a gun protecting his home from the crazed urban masses, but there is certainly value to showing the ways those same masses are exploited & abused by a racist police state that wants them dead. What’s most admirable about The First Purge is the way it deals in that heavy-handed, sickening political allegory while still often playing as pure genre fun. There’s enough neon lighting, expertly staged jump scares, and crazed maniacs (there’s a character named Skeletor in particular who’s a nonstop goddamn nightmare) detached from any direct political commentary for the film to succeed just fine without it. Instead of being content with those surface pleasures and making light political jabs at hot, safe topics like “fake news” & drone surveillance, the movie instead picks at the nation’s most infected political scabs without fear of who it might piss off by likening the government to the Gestapo or the KKK. I greatly respect if for that, almost enough to finally give the rest of the series a chance.