'The First Purge'
When ‘Get Out’ was released in 2017, more than a few people declared it the beginning of a new era of socially conscious horror films. For those who have been paying attention to horror for the past 80 years or so, the genre has always maintained strong roots into social issues and politics. ‘The Purge’ series has tackled topics of race and class, and their intersection with violence and politics, since 2013. The latest entry into the franchise is worthy of the praise bestowed upon other, more critically favored, horror films.
Within the world of ‘The Purge’, Americans are given one night to act without consequence. There are no laws. There are no rules. There is just autonomy and chaos. The first entry in the series was a small story about a single family attempting to shelter-in-place during the annual Purge night. It followed a rich white family with a black home invader. From there, the next two ‘Purge’ films focused on the outside world of Purgers, and we see what really happens on those dangerous city streets.
Smartly, the fourth edition into the series, ‘The First Purge’, shows us how the annual Purge began. Though a news montage, we see that a new ultra-conservative political party, the “New Founding Fathers,” has been voted into power in America and they claim to want to solve the issues plaguing everyday Americans. At the counseling of a social psychologist (Marisa Tomei), they decide to try an experiment. This experiment is a trial run of the Purge.
The trial experiment is limited to Staten Island, New York. The island is blocked off from the surrounding boroughs, and locals are encouraged not only to stay on the island for the night, but to let off a little steam by Purging. And when I say “encouraged,” I mean offered $5,000 a person, with the potential for a higher payout based on how actively they participate.
One of the most inspired visual distinctions in the film is the way that we’re shown whether any particular person has decided to have their Purging sponsored by the government. In order to track and record the participant’s behavior, each Purger is given a pair of special contact lenses. While these lenses look unnerving in daylight, they’re downright spooky when they light up at night. Seeing the glowing eyes in a presumably empty warehouse, or being able to slowly realize exactly how many people in a crowd have taken up the government’s offer for subsidized mayhem, is chilling.
To some extent, the film does a good job of examining the implications of this governmental tinkering through its characters and their classes. The young black man (Joivan Wade) who lives in the projects knows he doesn’t have much opportunity there, and is willing to risk Purging in exchange for a better-funded new beginning. On the other hand, the local drug kingpin and Superfly proxy (Y’lan Noel) has no need for money but is very easily persuaded to seek vengeance when he needs to.
The irony of the fact that this drug lord is the “good guy” is barely mentioned in ‘The First Purge’. While it’s clear that this experiment is designed so that the poor and people of color kill one another, thus reducing those “problems,” it’s not addressed that drugs can be just as harmful to communities. While we’re cheering on this savior to his ex-girlfriend and her family, I couldn’t quite shake the fact that he’s one of the people partially responsible for these social conditions in the first place.
More importantly, however, this is the first real ‘Purge’ film where the story is about the people it affects most. In ‘The Purge’, we saw the terror inflicted onto a rich white family through the course of a Purge night. Though their terror is certainly valid, the expansion of these films into the greater world shows us that the story of The Purge doesn’t just belong to rich white people. The story of the systematic antagonism and dehumanization of the lower classes and minorities belongs to those people more affected by this horrible night, and ‘The First Purge’ finally gets that right.
Beyond my small personal grievances, ‘The First Purge’ is a highly political film that directly addresses what could be the dystopian future of our country. It’s entertaining, but do not mistake its popcorn-friendly veneer for a lack of substance or morality.