We’re four films into the Purge universe by now, so we all know the score. Curiously, and rather successfully, The First Purge attempts to subvert the expectations set by its predecessors by going back in time to explore the origins of the grizzly ritual. Instead of a culture that understands and even anticipates Purge night, we’re meeting one that’s never seen this happen before. There’s the unlikely triumph of The New Founding Fathers of America. Then there’s Marisa Tomei as a psychiatrist with big ideas who is willing to work with the new regime if it means a large scale study. She thinks that a night of lawlessness will be a release, but when the reality on Staten Island, the chosen test site, subverts her expectations, she’s fascinated. The New Founding Fathers of America, however, are not. They’re determined to “prove” the people need the Purge, even if that means bringing in hired guns to massacre innocent people.
And that’s the rub. Not only do we have people just dipping their toes into the water of this 12-hour free-for-all, you have professionals brought in to make sure the body count is high. Per the usual, we follow a handful of people who find themselves drawn into the violence for different reasons and with disparate results.
The First Purge also breaks tradition by easing into Purge night, we get more context than ever before, and we spend a lot of time with the uncertain residents of Staten Island waiting to see what will happen when the proverbial genie is let out of the bottle. But for all of that slow burn intention, The First Purge lacks the tension of previous entries. The striped down simplification is narratively interesting, but scare stifling, which creates an interesting genre dilemma for the franchise going forward. It seems certain that we’ll see more of the Purge in the future, the challenge now will be to balance the concept that’s so long held fascination for so many, with a freshness that keeps the chills in tact — or at least more present than they are in The First Purge.
The results here are mixed, but as ever, this universe remains a fascinating diversion that, at very least, isn’t afraid to take a stand and make a comment.