Written by: James DeMonaco
Directed by: Everardo Gout
Starring: Ana de la Reguera, Tenoch Huerta, and Josh Lucas
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
The rules are broken.
The Purge was always built on an outrageous premise. Not the notion that America would descend into anarchy for 12 hours a year if it were made legal—I totally believe that could happen, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we learn this kind of legislation was batted around at some point during the last four years. No, what was preposterous was the notion that all Americans would just blithely return to normal and obey the rule of law once they were told to do so. Following a year where a lot of the country just decided to fuck around and find out with a global pandemic by ignoring regulations and mandates, it’s even more absurd to think that something like an annual purge would be enough to satisfy the worst among us. Pretty much every person wearing sunglasses in a Twitter profile including some combination of the words “Christian,” “patriot,” and an American flag emoji would just keep prowling the streets, causing mayhem because of “freedom” or whatever.
That’s the premise of The Forever Purge, a fifth entry that’s more timely thanks to a year-long delay that has serendipitously rendered it a movie of the moment in a way its filmmakers couldn’t have envisioned. These movies have never been subtle, but this one is so on-the-nose that you’d swear it was reacting to the events of the previous year rather than anticipating them. In that respect, this one respects the franchise’s sociopolitical vitality, and it definitely has something to say. What that is however, strays off into some ideological weeds, as The Forever Purge pulls both political and cinematic punches on its way to being a little bit too restrained. It’s a solid enough sequel, but I’m not sure “solid enough” is what you want from a franchise that’s proven to be increasingly incendiary and confrontational since its inception.
Swiftly walking back the events of The Purge: Election Year, opening television chatter informs us that the New Founding Fathers were reelected, thus reinstating the annual Purge Night. Down in Texas, a family of wealthy farmers (headed by Josh Lucas’s Dylan Tucker) prepares to hunker down on their heavily secured compound; meanwhile, the migrants they employ (including Tenoch Huera’s Juan) are handed a “Purge Protection” check that allows them to seek refuge in a local stronghold protected by mercenaries. Despite some brushes with purgers, everyone makes it through the night, only to discover that a nationwide movement has erupted, spearheaded by a group of white nationalists who want to keep The Purge going in order to “purify” America. Both Juan and Dylan find their families under siege, as the former’s wife (Ana de la Reguera) is taken into custody following an incident with an “Ever After” purger, while the latter has a harrowing encounter with a rival farmer looking to take his land. Together, the two must band together to fend off the zealots and escape to safety south of the border, where Mexico is accepting refugees during a harrowing six-hour window.
Like the previous sequels, The Forever Purge isn’t coy about exploiting America’s political milieu. Its incessant television chatter feels like it could be taken directly from actual cable outlets, whose talking heads lament the division and hatred ripping through the country. Once again, racial tension in particular is at the forefront, this time in the form of the tense dynamic along the southern border, where refugees seek the fundamental promise of America, much to the dismay of some of its residents. Series creator James DeMonaco doesn’t mince words with a screenplay that explicitly casts the Ever After Purgers as white nationalists seeking to “cleanse” the country of immigrant influence. You couldn’t pick a more despicable or timely group to cast as villains, so the general thrust of the movie—survivors blasting their way through a wasteland of racists—works well enough, even if the political dimension remains shallow, with obvious dynamic flipping that suddenly finds an affluent white family needing to flee to Mexico, a conceit that reaches its ironic apex when a Native tribe provides the final push across the border.
The irony would perhaps have had more bite if it were the white supremacists being forced to take refuge, but that would require a more confrontational take that’s hidden away at the margins of this one. We see glimpses of it in the scene where the less fortunate ranchers hold the Tucker family at gunpoint because they see themselves as victims of income inequality. It’s one of the few moments in The Forever Purge that had me squirming in an unexpected way because it feels almost distasteful to demonize the underprivileged. For a brief moment, it leads you to wonder what a Purge movie might look like with a flipped dynamic where the underclass turned the tables on the elite purgers to level the economic playing field. But this notion becomes a footnote here, mined as fodder for the film’s more on-the-nose political musings that has the Tucker family patriarch (a criminally wasted Will Patton) pointing out the hypocrisy of exploiting a system set up by the nation’s elite ruling class until a hail of gunfire ends the ordeal before anything too interesting or thought-provoking can arise.
Mostly, the whole incident seems to exist to show that there are very fine and bad people on both sides, effectively sealing the film’s centrist vision that crafts a heroic arc for a bigoted white man teaming up with the Mexicans whose presence makes him uneasy. Dylan Tucker insists he’s not a white supremacist himself—he just doesn’t understand Mexican culture, no more than Mexicans understand his, so he thinks it’d just be better if everyone stuck with their own kind. So we’re left with the familiar story of a white man finding salvation and some measure of redemption after witnessing first-hand the terror and oppression that thrives because of his own passive racism, an arc that admittedly could work if it confronted the complicit passivity of the white moderate instead of papering over it with cloying sentimentality.
A man finding a capacity to sympathize with the oppressed only after experiencing his own horrors instead of simply extending them empathy speaks to one of those societal ills that inspires this franchise, and meeting it head on could have provided a bite that The Forever Purge ultimately lacks. Recognizing the humanity of other people after you’ve felt dehumanized yourself isn’t the heroic act this film thinks it is, and it’s a little disappointing to see an otherwise sharp franchise pander to such nonsense. I don’t need a Purge movie to end with the sight of thousands of American refugees to “really make me think'' about the plight of real-life Mexican refugees—I’d rather see a movie where the latter takes up arms against the fascist oppressors this film unwittingly turns into saviors when the NFFA’s martial law forces intervene and save the day at one point. You expect The Purge to go to some thorny places, but this one pricks itself with its kids’ gloves treatment of its politics.
It may have been less disappointing if it were at least in the service of a movie that exploited its own premise to the fullest. The Forever Purge continues the trend started with the second film, which expanded the scope by ditching the claustrophobic home invasion genre for action-packed mayhem. Technically, this one is arguably the biggest in scope as it weaves road movie carnage with the usual maelstrom of urban violence that reduces El Paso to a flaming husk (that the film makes white supremacists responsible for turning a border town into the sort of lawless wasteland Fox News constantly imagines this region to be is the type of irony that does work). Such sprawling chaos makes for a big sandbox littered with gory, violent potential, but The Forever Purge consistently sidesteps any opportunity to big and garish. A notable instance comes when a biker gang surrounds the protagonists’ big rig on the way to Mexico, setting the stage for some impressive vehicular mayhem, only to have our heroes avoid the conflict altogether. When you have a chance to evoke the likes of Fury Road in your Purge movie, you should absolutely take that chance.
Taking chances isn’t high on this film’s priorities, though, so it largely goes through the motions, delivering plenty of routine gunplay and some visceral fisticuffs with the occasional gory punctuation mark, all of its edges dulled and sanded by the choppy editing that so often plagues American action movies. Perhaps in striving to feel of the moment, The Forever Purge feels bound to a grim and gritty aesthetic that requires realistic violence when it feels like it should be going in the other direction. If you spend most of your movie dispatching fascist scumbags, you should do it in the most glorious way possible. Maybe it’s more realistic if someone’s head doesn’t explode from a gunshot at point blank range, but I think you can make an exception for Nazis. More than the other sequels, The Forever Purge is content to simply reflect rather than act as a funhouse mirror, so it’s stripped of the franchise’s signature garish trappings, from the riotous violence to the indelible production design that’s made these films so visually striking. Even the film’s most bravura stylistic moment—a long take that finds the character winding through city streets on the way to a theater sanctuary—feels weirdly muted since most of the mayhem unfolds in the distance.
Maybe that’s by design, a byproduct of DeMonaco and company throwing their hands up and ceding that reality is too horrific for that signature candy-colored coating. I can respect that, even if it results in the most lackluster entry since the first movie. The Forever Purge is allegedly franchise’s final entry (insert “Sure, Jan” gif here), and, if that’s the case, it’s going out with a little bit of a hushed whimper since this one hints at a more proper finale that gets wrapped up with more newsbyte chatter just before the credits roll. It would be especially surprising considering our current political climate should only prove to be more ripe: we find ourselves in the early days of an administration that’s struggling to pass any sort of meaningful legislation, leading us to wonder if progress is even possible. The most insidious, shudder-inducing part of The Forever Purge is its insistence that elections don’t solve everything since the New Founding Fathers were installed back into power, and film’s denouement frustratingly avoids confronting the logical, uncomfortable conclusion it reaches: that the democratic process alone can’t topple fascism. If we take this film’s ending at face value, though, the revolution will not be televised but instead left as a lingering question mark for another movie to address. Maybe we should hope we won’t need it after all considering this franchise’s prescient track record.
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