Review: The First Purge

When Blumhouse introduced The Purge in 2013 it felt like another dystopian horror film full of violent imagery and horrific fever dreams. Five years and 3 films later, The Purge Franchise is one of the best film franchises in Hollywood.

The films have become a commentary on today’s political atmosphere – don’t worry; there are still plenty of jump scares, deranged “purgers”, and inventive ways to kill people.

The First Purge takes place in 2014. In an effort to save the country, the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) try a new sociological test from Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei) – the test is to see if allowing people to commit any crime during a 12-hour period, they’ll release their anger and be healthier. The people have nicknamed this test, “The Purge”.

Staten Island is the location for the first experiment. The NFFA has equipped people with contacts to record what happens during the purge and they’re also flying drones over the island to capture the night’s events. Not everyone is on-board with the experiment. Nya (Lex Scott Davis) is a local activist and she’s constantly urging people not to participate. Her brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade) is looking for a way to make money; of course that gets him into trouble. And the island’s drug kingpin Dmitri (Y’Lan Noel) isn’t too big on the purge, but his energy is focused on keeping his drug business safe for 12 hours.

Once the purge starts, things don’t go as planned and the NFFA does whatever they have to do to make this experiment work. Dmitri, Nya, and Isaiah are trapped on the island for 12 hours as all hell breaks loose around them and they’re forced to fight back.

Much like the two previous films, The First Purge doesn’t shy away from poor black and brown people (and other marginalized groups) being the ones hurt the most by the purge. The media demonizes and blames marginalized people, with no real power, for the ills of the nation (sound familiar). So when these marginalized groups suffer and die during the purge, nobody cares. The NFFA using fear to get citizen’s to vote for a law that A) harms them and B) simultaneously fills the pockets of politicians, doesn’t too far off from what is currently happening in America.

Insecure star Y’Lan Noel leads this talented group of young actors. He plays the anti-hero, Dmitri. He’s part 50 Cent, part young Wesley Snipes, 100% badass. Noel gracefully taking down goons during the final act is a thing of beauty. He moves so smooth and effortlessly during those sequences. This young man has “action star” written all over him. Noel is my top choice if they ever reboot Blade.

Lex Scott Davis performance as Nya shows the world she’s a promising young star. as well Her character is allowed to be strong while showing vulnerability, and Davis plays both very well. Davis has an early role in this summer’s Superfly remake. This role, however, gives her more screen time and a character that’s a lot more developed.

The highlight of the film, and the most terrifying character, is Rotimi Paul as Skeletor. He’s terrifying from the minute he steps onscreen. From his crazy eyes to his inaudible dialogue, he has all the elements of a psychopath. The spit that flies out his mouth while he talks is the cherry on top of his crazy sundae. Skeletor is a tornado of crazy the entire movie and not the person you want to run into on purge night.

As a horror film, this wouldn’t be classified as scary. There a few jump scares and there’s always the tension of not knowing what’s around the corner. Most of the real violence, that will have you watching through your fingers, happens during the third act.

The Purge was birthed with the idea of  a cringe-worthy horror, yet the films haven’t been that for years. The franchise hasn’t totally abandoned horror, but it’s not the first thing that comes to mind when you think about these films. The stories benefit from a narrative outside of people killing each other for the sake of killing. The First Purge is a reminder that the scariest things aren’t the people in scary masks but the ones we trust with our democracy.

Grade: B