Stop if you’ve heard this one before: A new entry in a mainstream genre franchise got yanked from the 2020 calendar and pushed to 2021 thanks to the COVID-19 outbreak. Now, it’s finally in theaters. It’s a familiar, stale refrain. In the case of The Forever Purge, the fifth film in the Purge series, 2021 is as good a time as any for a theatrical run: No matter the year, no matter the time, the Purge movies enjoy evergreen status and will stay fresh as long as American politics resemble a battlefield.
James DeMonaco, the franchise’s assertively Brooklynite creator and custodian, might prefer a figurative rather than literal comparison between fact and fiction. By a bummer stroke of luck, The Forever Purge premieres six months after an insurrectionist mob composed of militant white supremacists and frothing Trump supporters attacked the White House and democracy’s roots at the same time. The push for an investigation into this domestic terrorism has stalled as a few Republican politicians labor mightily to downplay these events (at best) or mischaracterize them as a “normal tourist visit” (at worst). Next to the escalating bedlam documented on morning news and in the papers, The Forever Purge reads as quaint.
The last sequential Purge movie came out five months before the 2016 general election, when we were still “with her” and “her” chances of defeating “him” at the polls looked insurmountable. Boy, were we wrong. The Purge: Election Year’s blend of horror and wish fulfillment shattered under pressure from 2016’s reality. Now, five years later, the series has caught up to 2021’s reality with its usual blunt force assertion.
Working from DeMonaco’s screenplay, director Everardo Gout follows two protagonist parties: The Tuckers—dad-to-be Dylan (Josh Lucas), his pregnant wife Emma (Cassidy Freeman), his sister Harper (Leven Rambin) and his father Caleb (Will Patton)—and husband-wife duo Adela (Ana de la Reguera) and Juan (Tenoch Huerta). The Tuckers own a ranch in Texas. Juan, having fled from Mexico with Adela ten months prior to The Forever Purge’s story, works for the Tuckers training horses, while Adela supervises a meat packing facility. As the film opens, it’s just hours before everyone’s favorite annual government-sanctioned murderfest, reinstituted in the gap between The Forever Purge and The Purge: Election Year. Safely behind the protections purchased with their wealth, the Tuckers hunker down for the night. Making do with the meager protections available to them in the lower class, Juan and Adela shelter with others who likewise lack their own personal fortress.
The Purge comes and goes with no casualties in either party. Gout shows video surveillance footage of people killing and people getting killed, and that’s all. Dawn comes. The Tuckers open their doors. Everyone goes back to work, walking straight into ambushes set by rogue Purgers intent on keeping the tradition alive—all year round. So it goes. The Tuckers, Adela, Juan and their friend T.T. (Alejandro Edda) stick together to survive and get to Mexico’s border. Our neighbors to the south have opened their borders for American refugees escaping the Purging.
Consider The Forever Purge as the “well, well, well, if it isn’t the consequences of my own actions” meme as a horror film. The racists and Nazis Purging well past their bedtimes are the creation of their elected leaders, the New Founding Fathers of America. When you give a mouse a cookie, he’ll ask for a glass of milk. When you give slavering nationalist ideologues the xenophobic validation they crave, and when you also grant them unfettered access to guns (plus the right to slay people once every year), they’re going to turn that validation into action, and that right into a lifestyle. The film’s prescience—its innate understanding of the dynamics that allowed 01/06 to happen—is unnerving.
The film itself is less so. After the stultifying original Purge, the franchise toed the action-horror line with Frank Grillo’s Punisher riff in The Purge: Anarchy and The Purge: Election Year, and stepped over that line with The First Purge in 2018. In The Forever Purge, the line doesn’t exist: It’s all action, all the time, with little by way of fright save for jump moments orchestrated in the keys of “creepy” and “cheap.” This isn’t a bad thing. Lucas, playing Dylan as an everyman cowboy with dad issues and exposed nerves regarding Mexicans, makes a fine action hero caught in an extraordinary situation, facing dire odds and unprepared for violence. It’s de la Reguera who gets the choice ass-kicking scenes—Adela is a tigress living like a tabby, lithe, compact and handy with a pistol. Frankly, de la Reguera might be right at home in a Raid-style movie if she ever gets the chance. Where Army of the Dead gives her room to strut, The Forever Purge lets her run.
The cathartic satisfaction of watching these Americans—and the film unmistakably sees Juan and Adela as Americans—dodge and shoot down fascist rednecks is a staple of the Purge movies. So are text-heavy, nuance-free political overtures. DeMonaco and Gout add shades of grey here through Dylan’s uncomfortable relationship with Juan and Adela; he isn’t racist, Dylan insists, but he doesn’t “get” other cultures and his solution to his bafflement is for everybody to keep to their own kind. He hates Purge night. How to process the complications of his worldview and his Purge view?
The Forever Purge simplifies that calculus, as is the series’ nature, but without sugarcoating its themes, which is also the series’ nature. From the start, The Purge has been a confused, “glass half full…or maybe it’s half empty” project. Broadcasts heard over carnage speak urgently to a nation divided, a nation at war with itself. Later, these same broadcasts relay messages of hope: Americans band together in the streets to fight the Purgers and save their country.
The Forever Purge is the most optimistic of its kin thanks to that grace note. It would have been optimistic in 2020, too. Maybe we need that encouragement more in 2021. The truth is we’ll probably need it in 2022 and beyond. Granted, we’re talking about a movie where grown men don bunny costumes to go a-slaughtering and a skinhead nearly has an orgasm while identifying firearms by the sound of gunfire. Nothing is normal. But that doesn’t mean The Forever Purge can’t give us something to aspire to by exaggerating the terror we’re living through.
Director: Everardo Gout
Writer: James DeMonaco
Starring: Ana de la Reguera, Tenoch Huerta, Josh Lucas, Cassidy Freeman, Leven Rambin, Alejandro Edda, Sammi Rotibi, Zahn McClarnon, Jeffrey Doornbos
Release Date: July 2, 2021
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.