The First Purge (Movie Review)

Last Updated on August 5, 2021

PLOT: In Staten Island, New York, the very first experimental purge is conducted by the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA).

REVIEW: Just when writer/director and franchise creator James DeMonaco found the sweet-spot of highly entertaining topical salience two years ago with the outstanding PURGE: ELECTION YEAR, for whatever reason, he’s opted to hand over the director’s chair to Gerard McMurray (BURNING SANDS) in lieu of helming a small-screen adaptation. More curious still, instead of updating us with an organic sequel to a show us the consequences of said election year (which I suppose would have been impossible given that the purge was outlawed), DeMonaco has sort of marooned himself to a position where all he can really do is fashion an unnecessary origin story. The result is THE FIRST PURGE, a grim, bleak and relentlessly dour endeavor that is an undoubted decline from DeMonaco’s third-entry-apogee, but also a movie that rightly reflects and morally advocates for the better treatment of the disenfranchised lower-class. It’s a refrain that needs loud reverberation these crazy days, and despite being way too pedantic in spots (among other flaws), THE FIRST PURGE has its heart in the right place. Especially in the way it asks quite violently, does America?

Staten Island, New York. The New Founding Fathers of America have just come into official power and are desperate to relieve people’s economic pain. They’ve come up with The Purge, a psychosocial experiment in which all crime is legalized for a 24-period. Despite being a prequel, the new wrinkle given is monetary compensation. The more you participate in the purge, the more money you will earn. We meet Nya (Lexi Scott David), a passionate protester who takes care of her little brother Isaiah (Jovian Wade), a wayward teen who starts to sell coke to help make ends meet. Isaiah ends up indirectly working for Nya’s ex-beau Dimitri (Y’lan Noel), the drug-king of Shaolin (that’s Staten Island for all my fellow Wu-tang fans) who not only becomes our complicated hero, but so obviously hews to the BLACK PANTHER tableau that McMurray flirts with undermining the message of the material. More on that later perhaps, but as the first purge nears, Nya and Dimitri want no part of it. Only Isaiah is willing to participate, for the money, yes, but also to exact revenge on a wacko-crack-head called Skelator that slashed Isaiah’s throat neck earlier in the night.

As the purge begins, only trickles of violent behavior occur. One of the problems with showing the rudimentary stages of the purge and calling it an experiment is that, as an audience, we already had the experiment conducted on us in 2013. It may be new to these set of characters, but it’s not new to us. We needn’t be retold the rules, or witness the early drabs and starts and fits of the low-tech, small-scale violence the purge incurs. By showing this, by going back to the nascent stage, before the honest hesitance of violence became evil entitlement, the dramatic tension takes a major hit. There’s an inert repetitiveness to the purging early on, which McMurray tries to atone for by including a few sequencing belonging far more to the horror genre than any previous PURGE iteration. That I appreciated quite a bit, even if they induced a misplaced chuckle a time or two for being so histrionic. Additional eye-rolls came via the anachronistic drone technology (this is 2012 at the latest, right?) and color-coded-eyeball-lenses for “purgers” to record their mayhem.

Of course, the real enemy here is the nefarious NFFA. Chief of staff Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh) admits to conducting the experiment only as an unconscionable means of eradicating the impoverished, thereby controlling the population. The Architect (Marisa Tomei) of the purge insists the experiment has nothing to do with politics, only scientific data. But when the early hours of the purge fail to produce the number of targeted homicides, radical action is taken on behalf of the NFAA that, despite how checkered our lead characters are (remember, Dimitri pushes the rock harder than Kyrie Irving), lets us know squarely who the bad guys are. Conversely, we never really get to know much more than the general plight of our sympathetic protagonists. Nya is so fueled with rage and despair, Isaiah so scared and on-edge, that it’s hard for us to find a moment of levity and laugh with them. Thank goodness for Nya’s neighbor Dolores (Mugga) bringing much-needed comic-relief to pinprick holes in the grimly-inflated tone that persists throughout. Still, this chapter lacks the rich character development of the last one, and disallows for the full range of empathy needed to make the characters’ ultimate purge in the end a truly cathartic one.

Much of this has to do with or hero not only peddling hard narcotics, but ascending to such a godlike Marvel hero that it’s hard to take seriously in the end. I realize McMurray is cool with Ryan Coogler, but come on, Y’lan Noel is no Chad Bozeman; this Dimitri cat is no BLACK PANTHER. And yet, when the movie farcically devolves into a one-man purge against the world during the finale, it threatens to undo all the good set forth before it. Namely, the way it rightly shines a light on, and voices the need to change the plight of communities of the very people who directed and starred in the movie: non-white people. There’s no doubt the movie will strike a chord in the zeitgeist, as it speaks to painfully pressing issues many people are feeling around the country. For a movie that begun as an inexpensive home-invasion thriller and ended up as a franchise of socio-moral commentary is also where THE FIRST PURGE reaps benefits.

Look, the purge movies are at their absolute best when they allow us as audience members to viscerally and vicariously purge along with the characters on the screen. And yet, I’m afraid that the more of these movies are made, the crazier these times become, that more of a blueprint of normalization is being laid for a real-life call to arms. That to me has always been the most terrifying aspect of the PURGE films. Now with that, Happy 4th of f*cking July!

The First Purge



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Jake Dee is one of JoBlo’s most valued script writers, having written extensive, deep dives as a writer on WTF Happened to this Movie and it’s spin-off, WTF Really Happened to This Movie. In addition to video scripts, Jake has written news articles, movie reviews, book reviews, script reviews, set visits, Top 10 Lists (The Horror Ten Spot), Feature Articles The Test of Time and The Black Sheep, and more.