‘The Forever Purge’ Review: A Blunter Instrument

The Purge has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the most interesting film franchises to consist entirely of mediocre films. Collectively, The Purge is a cutting work of social science fiction that, while built on an outlandish premise, may be the only Hollywood franchise that is totally honest about how terrifying America is. Individually, they are rote horror-action thrillers in which the most interesting details are found in the background. Set in a near-future in which the US government openly sanctions murder for one night a year, the Purge films are a class-conscious look at the deliberate inequalities in our society and a condemnation of the systems that perpetuate them. The fifth and presumably final film installment of the franchise, The Forever Purge, turns its barely-hyperbolic lens from America’s war on the urban poor to the escalation of naked white nationalism along our Southern border, but in doing so abandons most of its subtext and becomes much simpler and less interesting than its predecessors. 

The Purge RPG Sourcebook

If you’re unfamiliar with the conceit of The Purge (which was lovingly lifted from a Star Trek episode by creator James DeMonaco), here it is: in the early 21st century, a fascist party called the New Founding Fathers Association exploits an economic depression (probably of their own design) to seize power in the United States. Key to their platform is the annual Purge, a night when all crime, up to and including murder, becomes legal. The NFFA promotes the event as a crucial psychological release, allowing Americans to “unleash the beast” for 12 hours so that they can live the rest of the year in peace. In actuality, the Purge is a weapon against the poor, designed to reduce the population (and the financial burden of social programs) and to leave the survivors financially devastated. The NFFA ensures their desired result by stoking white rage and dehumanizing the unhoused, and when all else fails, secretly sending in their own operatives to get the killing started. Meanwhile, most wealthy Americans spend Purge night in safety behind their advanced and expensive home security systems, or ritually “sacrificing” others for their own self-actualization.

The metaphor for American life is not subtle, nor is it meant to be. Disasters like COVID-19 (or Hurricane Katrina, one of the inspirations behind the series) make it all too clear how American “equality of opportunity” is a sham, that a “level playing field” favors those whose fortunes are already made, and that our institutions are all too eager to sacrifice the poor in order to maintain the comfortable status quo of the rich. Capitalism and prosperity gospel condition us to believe that the super-rich are our betters and that “have nots” deserve not. Add the increasingly loud voice of white supremacy and our culture’s obsession with violence and gun ownership (did you know there are more guns than there are people in the United States?) and how much of a stretch is this premise, really?

As bleak as the realities behind it may be, the philosophy of the Purge films is not actually as cynical as it sounds. DeMonaco’s Purge series ultimately rejects the idea that human beings are naturally evil and want to kill each other. Rather, it’s the houses of power who want us to believe that we’re evil and to fear each other, because they stand to profit from it. “The poor want what’s in your house. Buy a gun!” “The immigrants want to take your jobs and destroy your culture. Vote for me!” “The terrorists want to take your freedom. Join the army!” The Purge films are not actually about fearing your neighbors. They’re about fearing the ease with which government, industry, and religion can manufacture consent for the most hideous policies that, before long, become sacred institutions.

The Forever Purge

There Has to Be a Morning After

The earlier films in the Purge series follow a simple formula — they begin on the build-up to March 21st, shortly before the 12-hour period of lawlessness begins. The story then follows a group of people through their efforts to survive the night, often uncovering details of the NFFA’s shady plans. The Forever Purge strays from this formula by adding a twist — what if the buzzer sounds and the Purge doesn’t stop? This time, the organized extremist group Ever After decides to extend their killing spree indefinitely, nationwide, with the unambiguous goal of rebuilding America as a mask-off white nationalist state. The problem with this twist is that, once this becomes a film about a white nationalist revolution, it no longer needs to take place in the world of The Purge. There is no metaphor at play here, no message beyond the (hopefully) obvious, no further twists to deepen the narrative. It’s no longer social sci-fi, it’s just a horror story grown directly from the real-life news.

Our protagonists this time around are Adela (Ana de la Reguera, Army of the Dead) and Juan (Tenoch Huerta, Narcos: Mexico), a couple who recently crossed into Texas from Mexico with their friend T.T. (Alejandro Edda, also from Narcos: Mexico) in search of a more peaceful life. Adela is a true believer in the American dream and thinks she’s found it working at a butchery alongside the sympathetic Darius (Sami Rotibi, The Forbidden Wish). Juan is not so convinced, plying his remarkable talents as a cowboy working under Dylan Tucker (Josh Lucas, Ford vs. Ferrari), the racist son of a wealthy rancher (Will Patton, Minari). The Tuckers quietly sit out Purge night inside their well-barricaded home, while Adela, Juan, and T.T. join dozens of others in renting a fortified public building and a small private security force for the night. Both families survive the official Purge unscathed but are surprised to become the targets of violence the following morning, and find themselves teaming up to survive the ongoing nightmare. 

Once the action kicks off, The Forever Purge essentially becomes a video game, following a group of desperate people who are uncommonly good with firearms attempting to get from A to B while shooting nearly everyone else they see. Character advancement is reserved for sporadic moments of relative calm (i.e. cutscenes) rather than being a part of the action, but this mostly escapes notice because there’s not much character to advance in the first place. The protagonists don’t have much to say to each other, though the environment does a lot of the storytelling for them. Flags and signs sporting mash-ups of racist, religious, and nationalistic slogans are omnipresent, and the costumes for the Ever After purgers tell you everything you need to know about the death-worshipping “patriots.” Again, since there’s no longer a subtext to unpack, imagination is barely necessary. Director Everardo Valerio Gout’s action staging is capable but unremarkable, prioritizing tension over thrills but leaning heavily on jump scares. His one show-off moment — a long-take action scene in the third act — only served to remind me that I’m no longer automatically impressed by long take action scenes.

The Forever Purge

Tuck Ever-Blasting

While ostensibly an ensemble piece in which Ana de la Reguera has top billing, the only character with an arc in The Forever Purge is Dylan Tucker, an upper middle-class white rancher who evolves from “Mexicans should leave me alone” to “I guess Mexicans are alright.” Dylan is what passes for a moderate in the world of The Purge, a well-off businessman who has no love for the NFFA but who also thinks that people should “stick to their own kind.” Like Ethan Hawke’s James Sandin from the first movie, Dylan has the option to spare himself from the purgers’ rampage by simply standing aside and letting them slaughter people of color, and must decide to put his own body and family at risk for theirs. Of course this is a positive message and it’s one of the prevailing themes of the series, but since Dylan is the de facto central character of the narrative, it also means we’re setting a pretty low bar for heroism.

This is especially apparent given that all of the other non-antagonists of the film are immediately ready to risk their lives for each other, which speaks to the half-hidden humanism of The Purge as a series. Juan and T.T. don’t hesitate to put themselves in harm’s way to save the Tuckers from execution by a disgruntled employee. Dylan’s pregnant wife Emma (Cassidy Freeman, Longmire) and sister Harper (Leven Rambin, The Dirt) reciprocate without question and insist on helping Juan recover Adela from police lock-up, and on sticking together for the rest of the crisis. It’s only Dylan who has difficulty learning that his inaction enables the oppressor, and his stubbornness looks all the more shameful when he’s surrounded by people who already get it.

Still, it’s disappointing that neither de la Reguera nor Huerta, supposed co-leads, get all that much to work with. A contrast between them is introduced early on, with Adela learning English and buying into American polyculturalism while Juan doesn’t see much of a point. The film proves them both right, in a way, but that’s not really examined through the lens of their characters. Instead, they end up being pretty generic action heroes, there to service the growth of the white lead who, despite this effort, still isn’t interesting. The result is a cast that’s fun to watch in the moment but wholly forgettable after the film has ended.

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The Forever Purge

A Post-Finale Finale

Ultimately, The Forever Purge suffers the same fate as the rest of the franchise: It’s not as interesting on screen as it is as an idea. The world of The Purge is a haunting and intriguing mirror of our own but, like each installment before it, The Forever Purge lacks any truly memorable characters or setpieces. It offers some good scares and the vicarious fun of watching righteous protagonists blow away white supremacists with shotguns, but afterwards I’m more likely to spend time talking about what’s not on screen, on the broader implications of the story than on the story itself. But The Forever Purge has an additional problem, which is that it doesn’t contribute anything to the mythology of The Purge as a whole. Rather, it throws it away, and that process begins from the very beginning.

The Purge: Election Day, the third installment of the series, ends with the landslide election of anti-Purge presidential candidate Charlie Roan and hope for the end of the NFFA’s stranglehold on the United States. The stakes of Election Day hinge on Roan’s survival, framed as America’s best hope for an end to its fascist nightmare. James DeMonaco intended this as the end of his trilogy, planning only to continue the series with prequels or spin-offs set in other countries. A prequel film followed, The First Purge, as well as a television series set before Election Day, but The Forever Purge takes place afterwards, and begins with an off-hand reference to the NFFA coming back into power and immediately reinstituting the Purge. Undoing the upbeat ending of a previous film isn’t in itself a bad idea, but it does rob this film of a potentially more interesting and more poignant plot possibility: What happens on the first March 21st after the Purge has been abolished? How do you handle the segment of the public who believes it’s their god-given right to commit murder? How easily can Purge abolition be enforced, and can it really be done all at once? These ideas are totally compatible with the thrust of The Forever Purge, but are simply left on the table.

The Forever Purge is also billed as the final film in the series, and likewise attempts to close the book on the story. Whether or not this is actually the end will likely depend on how well it performs at the box office, but given how this installment turned out, it’s not exactly something to root for. Most likely, the concept will be put to bed and then rebooted in a decade or so with new filmmakers behind it, and that’s probably the ideal outcome. There’s so much storytelling potential in the world of The Purge, and it’s not getting any less relevant. For now, we’ll have to settle for The Forever Purge.