Five films and one TV drama in, and James DeMonaco’s The Purge series still feels as if it is flying under the radar – at least here in Australia it does. The sequels have all failed to qualify for a theatrical release here, despite them being a lot more effective and politically relevant than most horror movies that have seen in the inside of an Australian cinema. They are not unknown here, but I have never quite shaken off the sense that they are sorely underrated. The most recent fifth installment, The Forever Purge, at least had a COVID-19 pandemic to blame. It is now available both online and on home video.
The original Purge, released in 2013, depicted a near future USA where the Federal government had attempted to control rising crime by introducing an annual ‘Purge Night’, in which all crimes – including murder – would be legal. Of course it became clear through both the first film and its sequels that the Purge was nothing more than an excuse for America’s rich to continue exploiting its working poor, and for white racists to freely murder people of colour and immigrants. Given the political context of the USA in recent years, it has provided the Purge films with a strong satirical edge that has boosted them above the level of violent thrillers to something altogether more interesting. The social commentary is not complex, but it is more than audiences typically get to see.
The Forever Purge jumps another decade into the future, and out of the city into rural Texas. The Purge, which had ended for a time, has been re-introduced, and at a white cattle station staffed mainly by Mexican immigrants the various people lock themselves up to survive the night. When the Purge comes to an end after its allotted 12 hours, however, the violence continues. With no apparent end to the mayhem, a group of survivors band together to escape into Mexico.
After a slightly underwhelming prequel in 2018, The Forever Purge is a strong and well-paced return to form for the series. New director Everardo Valerio Gout works from DeMonaco’s screenplay to present a rock-solid chase thriller with a fresh western influence. While it does repeat some of the dark urban aesthetics of earlier sequels – a lengthy sequence through El Paso owes a debt to John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981) – this is the first Purge to largely take place in daylight. It also maintains one of the real strengths of the series: it tells stories of big national events from a very intimate and personal point-of-view.
Its focus on Mexican immigrants, white nationalism, and border wars are an unsubtle and obvious commentary on Donald Trump and the ‘make American great again’ movement. On the one hand, The Forever Purge‘s one-year release delay (COVID-19 again) robs it somewhat of its relevance. On the other, events subsequent to its original schedule add an unexpected and worrying relevance. Ideas expressed in the film, like growing violent uprisings against the government and storming capitol buildings, seem much more believable in 2021 than 2020. Within the continuity of the Purge films, The Forever Purge marks an excellent progression: if a society’s worst people can freely rape and murder one day of the year, how long before the violence spreads beyond its appointed bounds and turns the USA into bloody chaos?
The franchise’s penchant for relatively unknown talent continues, with Will Patton and Josh Lucas the two most famous faces evident. Among the ensemble it is Ana de la Reguera who impresses the most as Adela, the closest character the film has to a protagonist. She gives her character strength, resourcefulness, and maturity. While things feel a little uncertain during the first act, once the main escape to Mexico kicks in there is not a poor actor in the bunch. Tenoch Huerta, Cassidy Freeman, Leven Rambin, and Alejandro Edda all deliver solid work.
This is not the strongest of the Purge films – that, to me, is still DeMonaco’s The Purge: Anarchy (2014) – but it is still a valuable and entertaining new episode for a great, provocative franchise. It does what sequels do best: it keeps the story going, finds fresh characters, and takes existing formulas into new and fresh directions.