There’s nothing more American than a Purge movie. At this point in the franchise — five films and a two-season TV series deep — Purge stories are run with a swagger that leans into that sentiment, as each installment widens the scope of a world where the United States government has sanctioned one annual night where all crime is legal. That twisted holiday has also led to unprecedented economic growth and a nearly nonexistent crime rate. Every new Purge film furthers the idea that American patriotism isn’t about all the nice things citizens say they value 364 days a year, but about the sins committed on Purge night. The Forever Purge, the latest film in the franchise, is the logical endpoint of that idea, an action-thriller where the whole thing finally falls apart. Unfortunately, it’s also where the franchise’s shaky grasp on social commentary also starts to falter.
While it functions pretty well as a standalone movie, The Forever Purge is a direct sequel to 2016’s The Purge: Election Year, and a matching bookend of sorts to the 2018 prequel The First Purge. Some long-winded exposition via news soundbites catches the audience up on the state of the Union: After a time with no Purge, rising violence and anti-immigrant sentiment catapult the New Founding Fathers of America, the radical conservative party behind the Purge, back into power, and The Purge is reinstated.
Unlike previous films, The Forever Purge isn’t interested in the political powers of its world, so franchise fans might feel a little baffled by this status-quo reset. Instead, The Forever Purge — directed by Everardo Gout with a script from franchise creator James DeMonaco — tells a more personal story, about Mexican immigrants Juan (Tenoch Huerta) and Adela (Ana de la Reguera) who arrive in Texas undocumented, fleeing cartel violence. Adela finds work in a poultry factory, and Juan works as a cowboy, employed by the wealthy Tucker family.
The pair are stereotypical Good Immigrants — Juan is a better cowboy than the Tucker heir Dylan (Josh Lucas), and Adela is hardworking, kind, and surprisingly adept with firearms. Patriarch Caleb Tucker (Will Patton) is a rich white man who, late in his life, is starting to reflect on his privilege, and when Dylan starts to threaten Juan due to his own insecurities, Caleb realizes that maybe his children aren’t doing the same reflection.
Then the annual Purge takes place, and nothing happens to our cast of characters. The real trouble happens the next day, as domestic terrorists with white-supremacist inclinations rise up across the country, and refuse to stop Purging. Before long, the United States’ well-armed populace descends into chaos, and the Tuckers are forced to band together with Juan and Adela (who curiously never get a last name) and try to make it to the only safe harbor: the Mexican border.
While the Purge franchise’s lack of subtlety is a big part of its charm, The Forever Purge is probably the biggest test of these movies’ unsubtle methods. There’s the delicious irony of a scenario where Americans desperately want to get into Mexico, but it’s burdened with a condescending execution. While Adela and Juan are ostensibly the protagonists, the Tucker family get all the actual character arcs. An overwhelming chunk of The Forever Purge’s brisk 103 minutes is devoted to the film’s Mexican immigrants saving the Tuckers’ lives, helping them survive, and furthering their moral development. It is, frankly, an insulting running thread that sours an otherwise deft horror-thriller.
But what’s really jarring about this one-sided view of what it looks like for a divided people to come together is that these sentiments are really out of step with the franchise’s core strength: its cynicism.The Forever Purge is full of empty platitudes like “America is everything, we can take it all, and we can embrace it,” or “ I always taught my son to be a good American, but maybe I didn’t teach him what that meant.”
The movie’s script is weirdly split between making its villains roving bands of unapologetically racist monsters, and also requiring Juan to hear out Dylan Tucker’s racist belief that “we should all just stick with our own.” Tellingly, Dylan is reformed, but not because of anything Juan says — remarkably, Juan and Adela only respond to the racism of the monsters who are out to kill them. It’s almost as if DeMonaco doesn’t seem interested in the ways both attitudes are connected.
Shortcomings like this are really disappointing, given that the Purge films have long excelled at a fundamental meanness aimed squarely at the American id. These are movies that rub its audience’s nose in what really thrills Americans — the violence that fuels our headlines, the conservative hate machine that others our fellow citizens, and the liberal complicity of wealthy people with good intentions. At their best, they’re a vision of America as it might be seen from the outside: a land of great wealth and great chaos, where the marginalized are persecuted with the implicit permission of the state, and love of country is justification for the power trip that comes with an arsenal of guns.
There’s a glimpse of that excellence in what might be the best scene in The Forever Purge, a 30-second fever dream where a neo-Nazi radiating with palpable bloodlust sits in the back of a police transport. He’s listening to the gunfire outside with relish, and like a sommelier of carnage, names every firearm he hears, barking out their unique reports and staccato rhythms. With a grin, he calls it “American music,” the song of the heartland, as the sonic chaos escalates until you can almost hear a guitar wailing out the notes of “America the Beautiful.”
“Strike up the band,” the Nazi says, right before everything goes to hell.
The Forever Purge opens in theaters on Friday, July 2, 2021.