The Purge series has often struggled to reconcile its attempts at cultural relevance with its glam-rock aesthetics and spectacular violence. The First Purge suggests that the fault was with series creator and screenwriter James DeMonaco, who for the first time has surrendered the helm. In his place, Gerard McMurray delivers an often artful and rousing action film that’s also deeply engaged with contemporary politics and social issues.
This prequel is set in a near-future Staten Island, in the borough’s underrepresented communities of color. The N.R.A.-backed New Founding Fathers of America party is now in power nationwide and has decided to stage an experiment in Staten Island: All crime will be legal for 12 hours, allowing a desperate populace to vent its rage. The purge is engineered by a social scientist who’s played by Marisa Tomei with a seemingly purposeful lack of conviction; one crucial bit of dialogue (“What have I done?”) is so sleepily delivered as to necessitate a laugh track. By contrast, the African–American actors playing the characters at the street level humanize their different stock types—the wise old-timers, the business-savvy gangster, the sensitive adolescent, the woke resistor—with sensitivity and naturalistic emotion.
Many of these characters, like anti-purge activist Nya’s (Lex Scott Davis) at-risk brother, Isaiah (Joivan Wade), participate in the experiment to raise themselves out of hopeless poverty: The residents of crumbling public housing projects are paid “life-changing” sums of money ($5,000) to stay on Staten Island during the purge, with bonuses for those who partake in the violence. Participants are required to don video contact lenses, which effectively make people’s eyes glow in the dark, and as they prowl about, these individuals suggest large cats. As such, there’s a striking sense throughout the film that to purge is to deny one’s humanity.
But most of the film’s Staten Islanders remain fiercely human, rejecting the experiment. There are a few isolated incidents of violence by the mentally ill and the criminally inclined, but otherwise the locals come together, rather than try to kill each other, congregating in churches and at block parties. So the New Founding Fathers unleash paid mercenaries, the only white people we see on Staten Island. Turns out, the experiment was really just a means for the powers that be to eliminate the needy in order to reduce overpopulation. As one NFFA official, Arlo (Patch Darragh), explains, without irony, it was either this or raise taxes, and where’s the political will for the latter?
The film’s two main characters, both anti-purge, represent competing political ideologies. Dmitri (Y’Lan Noel) is the cool-headed leader of a drug gang, pursuing a life of material gain; Nya, his ex, a politically conscious organizer, offers a community-oriented alternative to such self-interest. The invasion of outsiders into their neighborhoods inspires in Dmitri a moral awakening—a larger responsibility to other people. In a smoke-bomb haze, he massacres a gang of mercenaries dressed as Klansmen, splattering their blood on the camera lens. The moment is another example of how the film’s horror is dramatically connected to the struggles of poor and marginalized people.
When Dmitri enters one housing project, he cuts the power, and when the backup power goes on, we’re dizzied by flashing lights. At its most cinematic, the camera proceeds to glide alongside Dmitri as he moves upward, floor by floor, as if in a video game, clearing out the bad guys (including one in a leather blackface mask) while costumed like John McClane. It’s an arresting show of armed resistance in a new civil war, chilling yet rousing.
Especially early on, McMurray often rejects the exhibitionist slaughter that DeMonaco established as the Purge series’s modus operandi in favor of violence that’s rawer and realer. People are stabbed in the gut, shot in the head, or choked until their windpipes snap—methods that resonate more deeply for their verisimilitude. This is how people die in the real world, which makes the fantastical purge at the film’s center feel so plausible. But toward the end of The First Purge, the good guys get their revenge in increasingly stylized ways, and there’s satisfaction in the film’s retreat into artifice. You want to see these hard-fighting heroes live, and in no small part because the genre pleasures are balanced throughout with sensitive discussions between the characters about the desperation of systemic poverty and the fear for the future of this country, grounding the film in an emotional reality.