For eight years, James DeMonaco’s Purge franchise has been gleefully parodying the divisions in American society and the culture of violence that so often seems to underpin it. Subtlety’s never been the strong point of the five Purge movies (all written by DeMonaco, although he directed only the first three), and neither has consistency. But they say what say with a frankness few other mainstream movies achieve.
The first instalment, The Purge (2013), was a relatively straightforward home-invasion thriller which introduced the idea of an annual ‘Purge’: in a United States of the near future, for 12-hours each year, nearly every law is suspended and citizens are allowed to rob, murder, and run riot at will.
A considerable box-office success on a small budget (grossing $89M from $3M), The Purge concentrated on the ironic plight of a family that had grown wealthy by selling security systems as protection for Purge night. But the franchise’s aspirations for political commentary were greatly increased with the second movie, The Purge: Anarchy (2014), where DeMonaco’s focus broadened to explore the way in which the Purge exacerbated class differences: the rich hunted the poor, the government sent out its own killers to eliminate the lower classes, and a resistance movement emerged. Indeed, resistance seemed to triumph in The Purge: Election Year (2016) a few years later, with an anti-Purge party defeating the New Founding Fathers who had instituted the ritualised lawlessness.
The franchise then turned to examining its own roots in The First Purge (2018), a prequel to the original and, in many ways, the most interesting of the lot. It revealed the origins of the Purge was a local experiment, presented drug dealers as its most sympathetic characters, and (as I wrote myself at the time) is “so frank and unmetaphorical in its main point—that the black underclass would be quite justified in rising up against the white establishment—that it’s stunning purely in its bluntness.”
Now, with The Forever Purge, we return to the main timeline. The anti-Purge government victorious in Election Year has been defeated, the New Founding Fathers are back in office, and the Purge has been restarted. Indeed, a Purge night comes near the beginning of the movie, after a brief prelude introducing the characters of Adela (Ana de la Reguara) and Juan (Tenoch Huerta), two illegal immigrants from Mexico. But both they and the Tuckers, Juan’s rancher employers, seem to survive the spate of violence without much difficulty—Adela and Juan find a shelter that charges for protection, with the wealthier Tuckers owing a debt to their home security system.
So far, so familiar. The Forever Purge takes off in a new direction, however, when it becomes apparent that the killing’s continuing after the allotted 12-hours have expires. A militia-style movement known as the ‘Forever Purgers’ proclaim their intention to conduct an ‘Ever After Purge’, aimed at ridding the country of immigrants. The New Founding Fathers send in troops to stop them, but it’s not easy, and Adela and Juan (along with thousands of others) must try to flee back to the safety of Mexico.
The idea of inverting immigration this way, with the desperately sought better life now south of the border, is typical of the Purge franchise: cheekily blatant, with no attempt to disguise the point. Everyone will get that the Forever Purgers are exaggerated versions of ex-President Trump’s MAGA base, and indeed an allusion to the Capitol riot seems so likely that it’s surprising to discover this movie was completed a year earlier. (As so often in Purge movies, however, the parallel to real life doesn’t extend too far—as the New Founding Fathers are clearly not the Donald, and if they represent anything it’s perhaps the more conservative elements of the Republican establishment, willing to accept intolerant populism but only up to a point.)
In this, as in so many respects, it’s primarily DeMonaco’s film, but Mexican director Everardo Gout (making his first Hollywood feature) does a good job keeping things moving without resorting to clichés or over-dramatising the action. His no-nonsense approach means that few individual moments stand out, though a scene where a neo-Nazi in the back of a police van identifies firearms by sound (“homegrown music from the heartland”) is notable for its black humour and spot-on pace, DeMonaco here putting gun culture firmly at the centre of his “United States of hate”.
Gout gives the actors space to act, too, and the performances are stronger than one might expect from a movie of this type: de la Reguara and Huerta come across as rounded, credible people, while Will Patton as the Tucker paterfamilias and Josh Lucas as his son both display complexities that make their characters far more than rich, arrogant stereotypes. Zahn McClarnon is also striking as Chiago, a Native American tribal leader, even if his inclusion in the narrative risks feeling like woke overreach.
None of the Purge movies are perfect, and this one’s no exception. Much like Michael Moore, who puts forth similar social criticisms in an entirely different filmmaking style, DeMonaco tends to jump from one idea to another without fully exploring any of them. The movies perhaps never dare to get quite as dark as their subject matter warrants, and the targets are often easy ones—the bad guys usually come across as inherently and profoundly bad, and we rarely get a sense of how the Purge might change otherwise decent and law-abiding people.
But there’s an energy and chutzpah to them which is difficult to resist, not to mention the audacity of presenting liberal ideas in such a savage format. The Forever Purge is well-directed and well-acted, meaning it’s never for a moment dull, and that makes it a more than workmanlike entry in the series.
Where the franchise will go next is a tantalising question! DeMonaco had originally intended this to be the final movie, but is reportedly now working on a sixth instalment—and if, as rumoured, it depicts Purge night going global, it’ll be no surprise to see the film address some of the social tensions revealed by the pandemic. Anti-vaxxers in killer rabbit masks, perhaps?
USA | 2021 | 103 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Everardo Gout.
writer: James DeMonaco.
starring: Ana de la Reguera, Tenoch Huerta, Josh Lucas, Leven Rambin, Cassidy Freeman, Alejandro Edda & Will Patton.