The Forever Purge benefited from the frivolity and camp that the franchise has indulged in up to this point. My base expectation was that none of the characters would matter much to me, some of them would die, and little narrative progress would be made, because the real villain of the Purge is always ourselves – our division, our hatred, and our stubborn refusal to build anything new as we dance to a hateful tune played by dead men. In the real America, that’s how we’ve gone from two “failed” impeachments – neither of which were the product of a real deliberative process – to a riot over a failed Trump reelection by a pack of malicious and deluded morons whose political bosses have no interest in investigating the flames they deliberately stoked. Despite the Republican Party’s hard turn against democracy and voting rights, America has a long way to go before it reaches Purge World, largely because most Americans are too desperate, lazy, or geographically diffuse to bother with such a thing. That’s my quasi-optimistic view: America will slouch its way into national survival, give or take a half million hapless souls every few years from one preventable disaster or another. But there are other schools of thought, including that of screenwriter James DeMonaco, whose pre-Purge filmography includes co-writing the 1996 Robin Williams comedy Jack, which seems appropriate. Because like the premature aging disease that Jack suffered from in that film – I know The Purge would be a bit less funny in real life. And hey, that’s fine for a campy horror franchise. In the earlier days of the podcast, we praised this franchise’s attempts at world-building, but I’ve never expected The Purge to be anything more or less than it is: An excuse to indulge in some guilt-free escapist murder at the movie theater in a world that’s already over-saturated with the zombie genre (Ana de la Reguera‘s recent sortie in Vegas notwithstanding), and wants to see a bit more light and terror draining from its victims’ eyes. And oh, the camp it delivers: There have been frat kids with creepy monologues, furries, over-elaborate traps, and teenagers in lingerie who try to murder shopkeepers for trying to stop them from stealing candy bars. When the series first tried to ground itself in the real world with The Purge: Election Year, my reaction was to say that any mass-murdering government that can be canceled with a single democratic election hardly deserves to be called a dystopia. So you can imagine my surprise at The Forever Purge, a franchise conclusion which not only swapped out most of the camp for daylight, dire sincerity, pessimism, and a wider but credible scope, but did so with a group of characters that showed me just enough of their inner lives to make me care whether they lived or died. The film may be a plausible conclusion of what came before, or a sharp turn into critical respectability, but either way, it is certainly the best of the franchise.
A bit of the camp is still there – we see a pair of creepy men dressed as bunny rabbits capture Adela (de la Reguera) in a goat-cage neck-trap before she is rescued by a combination of her bat-wielding boss and her own hard-nosed past. For you see, good people, none of this was supposed to happen in broad daylight. The Purge was last night, and Adela was merely returning to work the next morning to find that most of her kitchen staff – undocumented immigrants from Mexico just like herself – have disappeared. This is merely the first sign and portent – we also see a newsman shot dead on camera in the middle of his post-Purge roundup of sanitation crews packing up the corpses and hosing blood into the storm drains. What’s one more body? Archive footage. Fake news. Perhaps we didn’t really see what we saw. We’re already 30 minutes into the film by the time the Ever After Purge gang shows its hand, and this is easily when it gets most exciting. What the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) did with their power (after an off-screen ousting and presumed execution of the Purge-canceling President Roan), was return to their previous method of holding power: persuade the poor to kill each other once a year. Their grift spawned an entire Purge industry, of which we’ve learned bits and pieces throughout the series. There are security systems, dropdown gates, and some gleeful participation for the upper middle class, immunity for government officials, weapons restrictions and paid protection militias for the poor, and an annual bloodbath that has canonically only been going on since 2014, the year after the first film came out, and continues through at least 2040. This bent version of America has gradually morphed and molded itself into a perennial murder machine, and The Forever Purge reveals what they’ve been preparing so carefully for: an accelerationist boogaloo. A 26-year water slide into a white supremacist-instigated second American Civil War, which will kick off with a campaign of well-organized ethnic cleansing against anyone deemed Unamerican, as measured by the pigment of their skin, deemed “invaders” by their haunting main street broadcasts and creepy skull-logo flag.
Adela, her husband Juan (Tenoch Huerta from Narcos: Mexico), and their friend T.T. (Alejandro Ella), are all on the run with the Tucker family, a clan of white ranchers, and Juan and T.T.’s employer. The Tuckers have narrowly escaped the populist clutches of the first purger of the morning, another Tucker ranch-hand named Kirk (Will Brittain), who seems keen to do a bit of righteous wealth reshuffling before being smacked down with an appropriately hacked and slashed white-moderate speech from Tucker patriarch Caleb (Will Patton). Caleb tells Kirk he’s a hypocrite and a liar who is nonetheless correct about this country’s unfairness, racial and wealth inequality, and inhumanity dating back to its land theft from the continent’s Indigenous people, and concludes his rant by telling him, on behalf of the Tucker family, to go fuck himself. Several shootouts later, the remaining Tuckers are on the run with their immigrant rescuers. When the race war kicks off in earnest, Juan has worked with Tucker son and boss Dylan (Josh Lucas) for long enough that they might have become friends if not for Dylan’s none-too-subtle racism against Mexicans. By the time the two are sitting in a truck cab, no love lost between them despite each having saved the other’s life in turns, we end up with a fascinating conversation in which Juan (whose English is a bit less practiced than Adela’s) asks Dylan to “slice the shit” and explain his problem with Mexicans. Dylan, a rich redneck who has spent the entire opening act engaging in minor racist hostilities but doing the usual white person thing of keeping the racist bones in his body nice and deniable, does something unexpected: he tells the truth. Dylan says he doesn’t have any problem with Mexicans (or Latinos in general), but he doesn’t understand them any better than they understand him, and he thinks the world would be better off if we all – that’s to say, each of the arbitrary, inconsistent, and overlapping racial cohorts on Earth, “stuck to our own”. That Dylan makes this observation – an outright confession of his belief in white nationalism – at a moment in which he feels both vindicated by reality and conflicted about how to treat the trio of Mexicans to whom he and his family owe their lives, made this character far more interesting to me than he had been up until this point, even if his beliefs aren’t much less despicable than those of the Ever After Purgers. Because white separatists know what they’re really asking for. Donald Trump knew what he was asking for when he demanded that tens of millions of people get deported, because sometime at Wharton, I expect one of his professors (or the smarter kids he presumably paid to write his term papers) might have mentioned to him that the only way that such a massive forced migration has ever been performed in human history is through an act of genocide. That an avowed white separatist is willing to admit his beliefs even as their veiled hatred and fence-straddling impracticality is being brought into sharp relief did make me care a bit less about his survival, but it also made me wonder just how many people in the United States – with most of their neighborhoods, schools, churches, and employers more segregated than they were in the 1960s – feel the same way.
The film’s last hour is an exhilarating ride as the real silent majority – the people who just want to dodge the carnage and stay alive – makes a run en masse for the Mexican border. This is where the action gets more elaborate and large-scale, and the cinematography (by longtime Gout collaborator Luis David Sansans) and editing (by Blumhouse/Michael Bay vet Todd E. Miller and French pulp action editor Vincent Tabaillon) keep everything nice and coherent, even as the light waxes and wanes, and the action setpieces vary from a close-quarters melee in the flickering aftermath of a flipped Sheriff’s van to a nearly 3-minute nighttime tracking shot as Ever After Purgers, the NFFA-controlled US military (including tanks), and numerous innocent bystanders battle it out for control of downtown El Paso. Everyone creeps closer to the border wall cutting straight through the center of the Paso Del Norte – the binational metroplex formed by El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. It is during this sequence that The Forever Purge tames the practical and geographical chaos (and ably demonstrates what a dumb fucking idea a border wall is and always was) and gives an impression of dozens of simultaneous low-level urban skirmishes happening just off screen as our heroes creep through, with a vibe that’s equal parts Sicario and Cloverfield. I can’t say much about the subplot involving anti-Purge activist Chiago Harjo, played by the outstanding Lakota actor Zahn McClarnon (whose depiction of Akecheta was a highlight of the second season of HBO’s Westworld), but what I can say is: I wanted more of it. The inclusion of this subplot feels like an overdue acknowledgement that any discussion of who America truly belongs to is incomplete without its Indigenous peoples, but it is functionally a deus ex machina, providing cover for the main characters without ever giving much of an individual reason why – only a tribal one which verges on noble savage stereotyping. This is a hard balance to strike, because similar shorthand is used with other characters, helpers and villains alike. But given how crucial Chiago’s contributions are to the film’s ending, I daresay he deserved better than to be identified on television as “Texas Tribal Leader” in order to add to the train of exposition about the country being a boiling cauldron of white rage, and then swoop in at the end to save the main characters. But this is a comparatively minor complaint. Chiago and his friends also get to flip vehicles with compound crossbows and explosive arrows. It’s all very cool, even if it revives a bit of the camp from above while remaining self-serious.
Anyway, if you want to see neo-Nazis die, this movie’s got em in droves, and we get to see them shot, stabbed, and blown apart in all sorts of entertaining ways, as they richly deserve in both fiction and the real world. One such moment is performed with gusto by Juan and Adela, making satisfying use of the language barrier that exists with a pack of inept hillbillies who refuse to learn a word of Spanish despite living in Texas (which has 7 million native speakers). I’m tempted to scoff at the seemingly hopeful voiceover that plays into the credits, but for the film to end with the knowledge that anti-Purge militias are springing up in New York and elsewhere to fight the Ever After Purgers is only a minor consolation, because it functions as a friendly reminder that if we ever do have another civil war in the real America, it is the right-wing militias that will have a head start, being that Antifa only exists as an organized force in the fevered dreams and knowing lies of right-wing politicians and pundits. Also, we have yet to hear what’s happened with any of America’s vast store of larger weapons, up to and including nuclear bombers, and it’s perhaps best not to think about those. We also don’t learn which parts of the military, National Guard, and police have joined in with the Ever After Purgers, but the answer is certainly greater than zero. That would be a rather unpleasant story to experience, I think, which perhaps helps to explain why I also didn’t scoff at Mexico and Canada briefly opening their borders to American refugees. Because when it comes down to it, we’re a scary bunch sometimes, and it’s definitely better to have us as invited guests than the entitled invasion force we would surely be otherwise.
FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10