Established in an alternate 2016 America in response to social unrest, the Purge of the Purge movies is an annual nationwide event wherein crime is legal for one night. This theoretically acts as a social release valve and maintains peace across the nation. Once the alarm sounds, you are on your own for 12 hours. Some weaponry is prohibited, though the affluent are exempt from such restrictions (same as it ever was). Mayhem is the rule of the day. No emergency services, no cops, just citizens in an unhinged Dionysian doomsday. Naturally, some are more prepared than others, and resources aren’t spread evenly, leaving the have-nots at the mercy (or lack there of) of the haves.
This premise was the focus of James DeMonaco’s original 2013 The Purge, and variations on the theme followed in 2014, 2016, and 2018, with a TV spin-off also developed. (DeMonaco directed the first three films, has written all of them, and created the show). Until now, what all installments in the series have had in common is that they take place at night, specifically the night of the annual Purge. Which brings us to the one major wrinkle of the latest entry: The Forever Purge unfolds during the day. Sound underwhelming? It is.
The film is set in the aftermath of Election Night. Its dystopian version of the United States is questioning more than ever the values of the annual Purge as everyone passes into another cycle. A recently migrated Mexican couple, Adela (Ana de la Reguera) and Juan (Tenoch Huerta), are caught on a spacious Texas ranch when the sirens lift in the morning, signaling the supposed end of the Purge. But bands of thugs, refusing to recognize the law, launch their own “Forever Purge,” complete with a hashtag on social media giving themselves authority to eliminate anyone they deem a threat to America, which mostly means brown people. They feel emboldened to purge in broad daylight, waving flags while they do it. Separated early on, Adela and Juan must band together with the wealthy white survivors of a border town ranch to safely cross the border into Mexico as refugees.
The film opens with Adela and Juan making that journey in reverse, trekking across unforgiving desert land to cross from Mexico to America underground. The towering border wall has telltale words like “NFFA” (short for the New Founding Fathers of America, the political party that came up with the Purge in the first place) and “These colors don’t run” scrawled across its face. It’s an omen of the on-the-nose writing to come, confirmed by a credits sequence that rushes by in a flurry of political talking-head sound bites—“The country is at a boiling point… white supremacy on the rise… The United States of Hate”—accompanied by the warning tones of The Newton Brothers’ horn-heavy compositions. The score complements the ever-expanding scope of this franchise’s thematic focus, but that expansion has become a problem for DeMonaco and for new director Everardo Gout, whose characters get lost in the increasingly prominent social commentary.
Though it bills itself as Adela and Juan’s story, a louder voice enters the chat in the form of the Tuckers, a family of ranchers led by Mr. Tucker (Will Patton) and his insecure adult son, Dylan (Josh Lucas). The Tuckers employ Juan to care for the horses, which he does well, but that doesn’t stop Dylan from tossing microaggressions his way and threatening his job. On Purge Night, the Tuckers don’t fret—their acres of land are monitored by multiple cameras, and protected with bulletproof shields that come down with the same contempt as the first-class curtain on a long-haul flight. Mr. Tucker pays each hired hand a “Purge protection bonus” and recognizes that Juan is more of a cowboy than his own insecure son will ever be. But he also dismisses Juan’s reports of racist treatment; Patton delivers these “I can assure you” lines, familiar to anyone who’s watched congressional footage, with devastating, patronizing accuracy. His performance is rivaled only by Reguera’s; her Adela is the most sensible character in a reckless country... which makes it all the more frustrating when the movie relegates her and Juan to the backseat, as Dylan yee-haws his way back to his wife and unborn child, and perhaps learns to make friends with brown people along the way.
The first Purge kept things simple: a family, a house, a man who needs help, and a choice to make, all during a dystopian event. The beleaguered family was, like the Tuckers, white and privileged. But DeMonaco did something substantial with their status, forcing them to reckon with their wealth, their non-interventionism, and their patriarch’s own vulturistic role in The Purge as a designer of elite home security systems. In The Forever Purge, we’re told a story that a battered nation has heard a lot—a sermon of immigration and class warfare that’s too heavy-handed to say anything its prospective audience hasn’t been told on countless social media feeds over the last few years.
The Forever Purge is no better as an action movie. It starts with an interesting setting: a sprawling ranch, rural enough to be isolated but with more nooks and crannies than the estate of The Purge. But like the other sequels, which moved out of the single setting and into the streets of Los Angeles, Washington D.C., or wherever there’s a flaming car to be overturned, this one “opens up” the action to a fault. Firefight carries into firefight, people are captured and rescued and captured again until backup arrives, and this repeats for an hour and 43 minutes. In between the fights are overwrought variations on what you’d find in the comments section under any article about immigration; the script voices maybe one insightful idea about the exploitation of laborers from Mexico before it’s on to the next ambush under the next overpass where the next angry white person can yell about America. In close quarters, DeMonaco preserves a taut tension and develops nuanced characters; once he ventures beyond the picket fences and into the streets, the players and the message suffer.
One is left to wonder who The Forever Purge is for. It sounds an alarm that people of color have been ringing for years. Focusing mostly on a white family who need to witness a literal apocalypse to stop being racist towards the help is not pushing any buttons, and pointing out parallels is ineffective to a nation that has been asking, “What now?” for years. The only solace, for a weary viewer, might be in DeMonaco’s promise that this is the last of the series. But as any fan of Freddy or Jason can tell you, when there’s money to be made, no final chapter (or nightmare) is ever really final.