On a short making-of documentary included on the Blu-ray release of the 2013 film The Purge, writer-director James DeMonaco says, “If it sparks any kind of discourse about violence in society, I think that’s a good thing. If people just enjoy it, great. But if they want to talk about violence, guns in our society, that’s great, too.” That kind of half-commitment to the film’s political elements defined the series until now, with the audacious 2018 prequel The First Purge. The Purge and its sequels — The Purge: Anarchy in 2014 and The Purge: Election Year in 2016, both written and directed by DeMonaco — all tiptoed up the line of delivering a loud, clear political message, but both films retreated before their subtext became explicit. The First Purge, directed by Gerard McMurray from a DeMonaco script, takes a different tack — it throws subtlety out the window, filling the film with images inspired by specific events like the 2017 white nationalist gathering in Charlottesville and the Charleston church massacre.
Four films into the Purge series, DeMonaco seems to have lost his taste for subtext. The First Purge ends with the none-too-subtle suggestion that the only way to prevent a racist, classist, authoritarian dystopia from coming to pass is by taking to the streets, ideally with weapons in hand. It’s a bold development, bringing themes to the surface that have been bubbling under since the first movie. And while it continues the sequels’ mounting sense of urgency, it also marks The First Purge as the first Purge film of the Trump era, when coyness has come to seem passé, messages can only resonate when sounded at the loudest possible volume, and the possibility of a norms-shattering totalitarian takeover is less of a matter of chin-stroking speculation than it once was.
In that sense, 2013 seems like a long time ago. Released during Barack Obama’s second term, The Purge is at heart a home-invasion thriller heavily inspired by Bryan Bertino’s great 2008 film The Strangers, which pits an innocent couple against a trio of intruders wearing creepy masks. DeMonaco’s innovation doesn’t come from the narrative or its execution, so much as from the world in which it takes place. The action unfolds at the sprawling home of James Sandin (Ethan Hawke), a security expert who’s gotten rich outfitting the privileged with security systems to keep them insulated from the Purge, a 12-hour period in which all crime has been made legal. The New Founding Fathers of America, the political party that’s seized control of the government, claims the Purge lets society evacuate its violent impulses in one frenzied night. But even security experts can’t keep the Purge at bay forever. When James’ son Charlie (Max Burkholder) takes pity on a stranger (Edwin Hodge) who’s about to be killed by Purge participants, James’ house is besieged by young people demanding James give them the stranger so they can exercise their legal right to murder him.
At heart a story of wealth inequality, The Purge would make a fine double feature with another 2013 film, Inequality for All, a documentary in which former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich explores the growing disparity between America’s haves and have-nots. For the haves, the Purge has mostly become one more alarming element of the modern life from which money keeps them isolated. For the have-nots, it’s yet another life-threatening peril. The Purgers who surround James’ house wear school uniforms that suggest their youth and privilege. They call their would-be victim a “dirty homeless pig.” A subhuman, in short. The fact that he’s black and a veteran just makes him, by their reckoning, that much more removed from the world of real people who matter — their monochromatic world of privilege and power.
The Purge plays like a worst-case-scenario extrapolation from the events of the day, a darkest timeline that still seemed distant five years ago. So does The Purge: Anarchy, which broadens the scope of the film’s world and introduces some new themes. Set against a Purge Night in Los Angeles, it pits a diverse group of unfortunates against roving street gangs, gun-toting lunatics, hardened right-wing extremists with military-grade arsenals, and millionaires who pay handsomely for the right to murder their victims within the safety of controlled environments.
The film reveals a mounting resistance movement (including Michael K. Williams as an underground leader, and Hodge as the stranger from the first film), and complicates the racial dynamic by making one set of antagonists a black street gang (led by a then-little-known Lakeith Stanfield) motivated not by patriotism or an urge to kill, but by a rare opportunity to rake in huge profits within the bounds of the law. But Anarchy’s cleverest touch, carried over and expanded from the first film, is the way it uses media. Voices of dissent make it to the air, but they’re drowned out by pro-Purge voices. The New Founding Fathers control the overarching narrative while maintaining the illusion of a free press. Those looking for the real story have to look elsewhere, to sources like online protest videos that repeat the theme of the first film, that the Purge is about “one thing: money.” Even worse, the already-skewed game is further rigged against the poor by government commandos who pose as Purge participants to exterminate the underclass.
Released during the 2016 election season, The Purge: Election Year transplants the action to Washington, DC and more or less repeats that approach. It does introduce some intriguing new elements, particularly the “murder tourists” who travel to the US for the Purge, and dress as grotesque caricatures of American iconography for the occasion. But it also inches closer and closer to our reality by pitting a female presidential candidate (Elizabeth Mitchell) against the New Founding Fathers, who conspire to win the election by assassinating her under cover of the Purge. In an age of extensive legal election-rigging in the forms of gerrymandering and voter suppression, Election Year takes election rigging to its most blatant and violent form. The film echoes the real world in ways DeMonaco couldn’t have predicted at the time. Yet for all its 2016 resonances — intentional and otherwise — Election Year is curiously the least political of all The Purge films, the sort of franchise entry that appears once a series’ formula has started to ossify.
By contrast, The First Purge goes all-in with its politics. Set on Staten Island, which has been chosen as the site of an initial one-night Purge experiment, the movie’s heroes include Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and Dmitri (Y’Lan Noel) a drug kingpin for whom the night becomes a kind of violent political awakening. The heroes are all people of color. The villains are the New Founding Fathers of America and the puppets, witting and unwitting, they use to enact their agenda.
The film turns one night on Staten Island into a compression of the last few years of real-world American horror, a place where random violence seems like less of a threat than armed white supremacists and a government that sees them as allies in an ongoing culture war. Over the course of the film, a few scattered murders committed by unstable or spiteful people give way to waves of well-organized, government-backed death squads, dressed in Klan robes and Nazi-evoking trenchcoats. A church becomes a refuge for a handful of people who refuse to participate in the Purge, but the refugees are wiped out in an armed attack. It’s a place where even a place of worship is no longer safe from gun violence. (In a telling detail, a prologue filling in some details of the NFFA reveals the party came to power with the NRA’s help.) And under such extraordinary circumstances, the only choice is to fight back. In one scene, Dmitri strangles an attacker wearing a mask inspired by blackface caricatures. McMurray lets the death play out in one, long, unsparing shot that goes on well past the point of comfort. Amid recent hand-wringing about when, if ever, it’s okay to punch a Nazi, and the current debate over the place of civility in political conversation, this revenge-fantasy against the literal face of racism sounds a clear note: some threats are existential, and should be recognized and treated as such. It stirred applause in the screening I attended.
And it’s just one of many ways The First Purge abandons restraint and makes more direct connections to recent events than the previous movies. One fight sequence pointedly evokes Donald Trump’s infamous “Grab ‘em by the pussy” line from his Access Hollywood tape, as a protagonist fights off a sewer-dwelling attacker. The scenes of hired Purge gangs storming into Staten Island’s streets, covered in white supremacy symbols, echo recent news footage of openly racist rallies and marches. By tapping into the violence inherent in so much current political messaging — like Trump calling immigrants “animals” — The First Purge has finally delivered a Purge entry as provocative as the series’ premise.
And that feels like a significant step away from DeMonaco’s previous “If people just enjoy it, great” stance. The previous Purge films straddled a line between entertainment and political commentary, but with the latest installment, the political message is so heavily foregrounded, DeMonaco and the others seem to be forcing viewers to consider the implications of inhumane governing and a political system openly biased against poorer citizens. The approach fits into the tradition of exploitation films that use genre movies to comment on current events, much in the way George Romero used his many zombie movies to comment on racism, social inequity, and the changing state of the world. Or the way ‘70s blaxploitation films piled on the action, but often doubled as tours of neighborhoods torn apart by economic inequality and government neglect.
On the other hand, the filmmakers could also just be exploiting current events, using fashionable wokeness to extend the franchise — in The First Purge, the closing credits pause mid-roll, leading into an advertisement for a soon-to-arrive Purge TV series. But there are safer ways to keep a series going than turning up the politics. While the film ends on a hopeful note, sounded by nothing less than Kendrick Lamar’s protest staple “Alright,” the film’s structure is a call to action. The Purge film that most closely mirrors our own reality is the one set at the point where its fictional United States is taking its most drastic turn toward fascism and dystopia.