The First Purge: Phantom Menace, by David Bax
The Purge franchise has never even attempted to be subtle about its social and political allegories. In fact, it’s become less so with each installment. Now, with the prequel The First Purge, it’s practically screaming. You might complain that it’s become too literal or that its messaging is often clunky and inconsistent but, with the national ills in its crosshairs getting bigger every day, the boldness of the series might be something we need. When the dangerous, nationalist political party in power in the movie’s alternate United States talks of “reviving the American dream,” it might as well be saying, “Make America Great Again.”
Purge creator James DeMonaco has stepped out of the director’s position for the first time, though the screenplay is still his. New director Gerard McMurray takes over for this prequel installment, detailing the experimental first “purge,” localized only to Staten Island and not nationwide as in the existing trilogy. The choice of location is no accident. Sure, the fact that it’s an island lends to the Escape from New York feel of it all but it’s telling that DeMonaco set his story in a majority white borough that voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump and then chose to focus on the poor black and Latino population surviving within its borders.
That focus on ethnic minorities has increased with each entry. Looking back now on 2013’s The Purge, that was likely the intention all along. This is sort of a Trojan horse franchise, with the first film revolving around a wealthy white family and only including one black character (who is offered refuge by the white family’s son, thus sparking the entire home invasion premise of the movie) and each subsequent installment making more and more clear which Americans are actually, disproportionally endangered by the annual ritual of twelve consequence-free hours for everyone to indulge their basest instincts. With The First Purge, DeMonaco is far more interested in deepening these connections to the real world (like the hand-drawn sign reading “Black Owned” hung in front of a business, recalling the 1992 Los Angeles riots) than he is in respecting his own continuity. It would be hopeless to try to make a coherent timeline out of this franchise but that’s not the point; this isn’t Star Wars.
Though still nominally a horror franchise, The First Purge is more of an action film than anything else. McMurray includes plenty of nods to the series’ roots, though. With threats lurking in the darkness as characters try to get to safety, there’s more than a little of the survival horror subgenre. And the climactic militia raid on a housing project is a clear homage to Dawn of the Dead. Even that sequence, though, quickly turns into Die Hard-in-the-projects and McMurray proves himself to be no slouch in the action department both in terms of coherent spatial geography and of tactility; bullet hits, knife stabs and snapped bones abound, each of them with visceral power. The fight choreography is scrappy, close-up, hand-t0-hand and adrenalized.
Previous Purge movies have indulged in the occult, mask-donning, Grand Guignol weirdness of the yearly tradition, with Election Year, the previous entry, climaxing with a quasi-religious ritual in a church. The First Purge is (comparatively) rooted in realism but McMurray gives us the beginnings of what will come with touches like the logo of the New Founding Fathers of America (a political party as evil as it is well-branded) on the box of the glow in the dark contacts purgers wear during the “experiment” to track and record their activities. The resulting electric blue eyes pierce the night as their bearers slice and shoot their way through the city.
The First Purge is a fun time for those of us who like violent movies but its power comes mostly from its parable of minority victimization. The purge itself is only an exaggerated example of real world policies like mandatory minimum sentencing and voter identification laws that have an imbalanced effect on poor people of color without specifically including race or class in their text, all while financially benefiting private prisons and other such mutations of capitalism. Monetized racial discrimination is so firmly tied to America’s past that The Purge movies hardly need take place in an alternate reality at all. This time around, we even see the NFFA outright hiding or distorting facts in order to further their self-serving narrative, much like the Trump administration’s recent rejection of a report showing the substantial economic benefit of allowing refugees into the country. In The First Purge, similarity to our own reality is the scariest thing of all.