On the surface, the “Purge” movies are pretty ridiculous.
The five-film franchise that began with 2013’s “The Purge” takes place in a near-future America, which allows an annual 12-hour period in which all crimes are legal. According to the conservative New Founding Fathers party, the Purge helped the country recover from near-economic ruin by allowing Americans to release their negative emotions. However, the film quickly reveals this to be a mere rhetorical device, camouflaging the way the Purge lets rich (mostly White) Americans decimate poor (mostly non-White) populations.
For the first three movies, that premise served up more horror-action than any political commentary. But the franchise found its voice with 2018’s “The First Purge.” Released at the height of Trump-inspired racism, “The First Purge” is a blast of righteous anger, in which Black communities fight back against a government that wants to blame them for their own destruction.
“The Forever Purge,” written by franchise creator James DeMonaco and directed by Everardo Valerio Gout, continues in that vein by focusing on the Texas border with Mexico. The film brings together two families: recent Mexican immigrants Juan (Tenoch Huerta) and Adela (Ana de la Reguera), and the White Tuckers, who employ Juan on their ranch. While the family patriarch Caleb (Will Patton) acts like a decent human being, treating his employees with equal respect, his son Dylan (Josh Lucas) openly resents Hispanics.
The movie’s first act follows the familiar “Purge” model, in which everyone locks down during the titular event. We watch as Juan and Adela leave their El Paso home to join with other Hispanics in a bunker, protected by the guards they hired by pooling their resources. As Adela listens to White Purgers drive past the bunker and threaten to “cleanse” America of immigrants, Gout cuts to the Tuckers, who spend the night drinking and dancing behind the steel gates protecting their ranch.
To be sure, there’s value in this portrait of racially driven economic difference, especially for White viewers who identify with Caleb. Unlike the openly racist Dylan, Caleb treats Juan and his fellow vaquero T.T. (Alejandro Edda) with kindness, even given them a cash bonus to buy protection during the Purge. But as these early scenes demonstrate, Caleb’s personal feelings have little bearing on the systemic racism that protects his family and leaves Juan vulnerable.
Gout and DeMonaco drive that point home as the movie deviates from the “Purge” formula. On the morning of the Purge’s end, Adela travels to her factory job and Dylan opens the ranch when both are attacked by groups of masked Purgers. In their crazed rants, the invaders insist that the Purge does not go far enough because poor White people are still weakened by immigrants and exploited by rich Whites. To make America great, these assailants initiate the Forever Purge. When Caleb argues against his attackers’ revolutionary rhetoric, pointing out that America was built on thievery and exploitation, he gets shot in the head.
What follows is a vivid, violent take on recent American politics. Determined to defend a country that they believe has been stolen from them, the Forever Purgers act with impunity. Despite all of the laws made to their advantage, including the 12-hour Purge and the economic benefits that come with it, the Forever Purgers insist that it’s not enough. Declaring themselves to be the sole, true arbiters of the law, the Forever Purgers attack anyone who they determine to be insufficiently American. This obviously includes Juan, Adela, and T.T.; but it also includes the Tuckers, who benefited from the New Founding Fathers and American racism.
With the Forever Purgers on the attack, the government declares Marshall Law, turning the country into a battlefield. Upon learning that Mexico and Canada will welcome refugees fleeing the United States, Adela, Juan, and T.T. agree to help Dylan, his sister Harper (Leven Rambin), and his pregnant wife Cassie (Cassidy Freeman) cross the Southern border.
Flying flags that mix American imagery with a menacing skull, the Forever Purgers march through the streets to do battle with not just immigrants, but with American citizens and even the U.S. military, all in the name of saving their country.
Even beyond the reversal of the Tuckers becoming emigrants fleeing the U.S., the real power of “The Forever Purge” is in the way the movie’s “true” Americans destroy the country they want to protect. In the film’s most visually stunning moments, cinematographer Luis Sansans pans the camera from vistas overlooking El Paso and other American towns to show the city in flames. Flying flags that mix American imagery with a menacing skull, the Forever Purgers march through the streets to do battle with not just immigrants, but with American citizens and even the U.S. military, all in the name of saving their country.
“Purge” movies are never subtle, and one can draw a straight line between the Forever Purgers in the film and real-life insurgents, such as those who attacked the Capitol building on January 6. Insisting that they were somehow the truest Americans and bastions of freedom, the insurgents became an invading force who tried to destroy the country they wanted to protect.
For Christian viewers, the real-world insurgents and the fictional Purgers bring to mind warnings about sin. Scripture repeatedly reminds readers that sin brings punishment, put most simply by Romans 6:23, “the wages of sin is death.” But Jesus provides a more pointed version of those warnings in the “woes” recorded in Matthew 23:13-39. Throughout the passage, Jesus condemns religious leaders for neglecting “the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness” and destroying the prophets sent to save them. Jesus closes the passage not with anger, but with lamenting, crying,
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’
It’s hard not to look at the Capitol insurgency, and so many other markers of America’s racist history, and not fear for desolation. Time and time again, America has been warned that white supremacy will reduce the country to rubble, and each time we have the chance to repent, we instead multiply our sins. We’ve been sent prophet after prophet, from William Apess and John Brown to Martin Luther King Jr. and James H. Cone; and each time, these prophets have been ignored or silenced or worse.
For all its schlocky violence, “The Forever Purge” belongs among these prophets. When Gout covers the screen with murderers dressed in twisted versions of Americana garb — skull-faced cowboys, construction workers with hideous masks, and mashups of U.S. military uniforms and Nazi paraphernalia — Americans cannot help but hear “woe.” As the Trump years have shown us, the silly premise of “The Purge” is too close to reality. We must repent now from our national sins or face a hell more harrowing than anything found in a horror movie.