Going In for the Kill:
The Forever Purge and The Purge Franchise
By Gavin Smith
The Purge franchise has come a long way since its first installment eight years ago. Set in a dystopic 2022, writer-director James DeMonacoâ€™s The Purge (2013), which cost $2.8 million and grossed $89 million worldwide, staked out a premise of amoeba-like simplicity, or purity, perhaps: once a year murder is decriminalized for 12 hours with government sanction. Itâ€™s a new kind of national holiday in which citizens are exhorted to do their civic duty by letting rip, or as the media boosters put it, â€śrelease the beast.â€ť
The Purgeâ€™s opening minutes hint at social satire, but then after 20 minutes the film becomes a by-the-numbers home-invasion thriller, with the camera and characters, confined entirely within a familyâ€™s locked-down suburban home, besieged by a gang of millennials who have drunk the Purgeâ€™s Kool-Aid. Whatâ€™s at stake in what follows is the physical and moral survival of that family, headed by Ethan Hawke, as well as that of a Black Army veteran offered sanctuary by Hawkeâ€™s son. DeMonaco opened things up in the next two editions, with the action now playing out on the nighttime streets of Los Angeles in The Purge: Anarchy (2014), and Washington D.C. in The Purge: Election Year (2016). Then came The First Purge (2018), a prequel set on Staten Island in an indeterminate year before 2022, and now under the direction of Fruitvale Station producer Gerard McMurray.
The Forever Purge, directed by Mexican filmmaker Eduardo Gout, is set in Texas, an equally unclear number of years on from 2022, and takes the mayhem to another level entirely. According to DeMonaco, itâ€™s intended to be the franchiseâ€™s final installment, and itâ€™s not hard to see why. True to the steadily expanding scope and implications of the Purge films (and a rather lesser 2018-19 TV spinoff that ran to 20 episodes), whatâ€™s at stake this time is the very survival of the United States of America.
Thereâ€™s a basic genre impetus nested within each Purge film. The Purge: Anarchy turns out to be a revenge film, The Purge: Election Year is a pursuit thriller, and The First Purge is an invasion movie with a conspiracy thriller backbeat. Radically upping the ante, The Forever Purgeâ€™s scenario calls to mind social breakdown/apocalypse narratives. DeMonacoâ€™s model for the first sequels was Escape from New York, but The Forever Purge recalls the all-hell-breaks-loose openings of John Miliusâ€™s Red Dawn and Zack Snyderâ€™s Dawn of the Dead. The new angle is that after Purge night is concluded and rule of law resumes, the violence continues to escalate on a national level as an assortment of white supremacist militia forces, mercenaries, score-settlers, and the just-plain-crazy overwhelm the forces of law-and-order in the name of a vaguely defined new movement, â€śThe Forever After Purge.â€ť
As the saying goes, once the genieâ€™s out of the bottle, you canâ€™t put it back in. Martial law is declared, and Gout gives us front row seats to the action, as the streets of El Paso become a battle zone with the nonstop chatter of automatic weapons and the rumble of tanks, and the U.S. military trying and failing to quell the insurgency. Ostensibly intent on overthrowing the government, the militia forces are also targeting anyone that doesnâ€™t fit the Aryan profile, regardless of nationality. As one central-casting white supremacist (replete with swastika facial tattoos) puts it, â€śAnything goes.â€ť That might just as well be the franchiseâ€™s credo since it calls for and excels in all manner of mayhem and violence-as-spectacle. (Although the franchise has echoes of both Paul Bartelâ€™s 1975 black comedy Death Race 2000 and â€śThis Is Moscow Speaking,â€ť a 1962 Russian short story by Yuli Daniel in which the Soviet government announces a Public Murder Day, according to DeMonaco the inspiration for the first film was rooted in personal experience: an episode of road rage which escalated to a fist fight and later gave rise to the fantasy of being granted one free murder a year.)
The Forever Purgeâ€™s chief dramatis personae consist of two couples: the son of a prosperous horse-ranch owner (Josh Lucas, who remains the go-to actor for smooth-talking creeps) and his pregnant wife (Cassidy Freeman); and a Mexican American ranch hand (Tenoch Huerta) and his wife (Ana de la Reguera), who demonstrates unexpected combat know-how from her days as a vigilante battling the drug cartels back home. The ranch paterfamilias (Will Patton, who makes an early bullet-in-the-head exit) is a decent man, but the relationship between son and employee is one of mutual resentment with a racial tinge. (Lucasâ€™s character will later clarify that he has no problem with Hispanic people, he just doesnâ€™t think white and brown cultures should mix.) Like many Americans, the two couples and their familiars do not â€śsupportâ€ť the Purge (unlike Ethan Hawke in the first film), and they wait out the 12 hours in lockdown in their respective secure locationsâ€”a luxurious fortified ranch with a security system and armory for the whites and a makeshift urban compound under armed guard for the mostly Hispanic folk. (Such POC sanctuaries also figure in The Purge: Anarchy and The Purge: Election Year.) But itâ€™s only after the all-clear siren is sounded that the shit truly hits the fan. Huertaâ€™s character saves the rancher family from execution by a group of embittered employees consumed by a haves-and-have-nots animus, and the two couples and several companions then become allies in a race against time to reach the Mexican borderâ€”which, in a touch of on-the-nose irony, has been opened for a limited time to accept refugees from the violence in the North, pointedly reversing the scene at the filmâ€™s start in which illegal migrants cross into the U.S.
Shot in the fall of 2019 and originally set for 2020 release, The Forever Purge canâ€™t be taken as a comment on the events of January 6, 2021, even though its release six months later seems to court feverish interpretations and allowed time for some last-minute tweaking. All the same, itâ€™s a legitimate (and/or opportunistic) ne plus ultra take on the political and social polarization and paranoid atmosphere of the Trump era, or failing that, America in the 21st century. The pre-Trump The Purge and The Purge: Anarchy already exploited this mood, long in the air. The Purge: Election Year was another matter. Released, like the other installments, over the July 4th weekend, it centered on a female presidential candidate (Elizabeth Mitchell) and the bodyguard who keeps her safe (Frank Grillo) when her Purge-night security detail is wiped out by mercenaries. This is the film that first puts a face to the name of the political party that governs the U.S., the New Founding Fathers of America, whose rhetoric of American purification, sacrifice, and rebirth has elevated its brainchild, the Purge, to the level of a religious cult. The Purge: Election Year was written and in production well before Make America Great Again became the 2016 Trump campaign slogan, but of course Trumpâ€™s candidacy was a boon to the filmâ€™s financial success. (The NFFA party founder, played by Dale Dye, is identified as â€śDonald Talbottâ€ť during a TV interviewâ€”doubtless a last-minute addition that required a half dayâ€™s reshoot.)
Of course, thereâ€™s no getting around the fact that the New Founding Fathers of America is just a much meaner MAGA. Itâ€™s also blatantly the party of the one percent. The police and other emergency services stand down during the 12 hours of fun and games and the news media coverage is fastidiously uncritical (one report mentions in passing the arrival of â€śmurder touristsâ€ť from South Africa and Germany, flying in to get a piece of the action). It goes without saying that politicians and senior government officials are exempt from the Purge, although itâ€™s never explained exactly how. In one of The Purge: Anarchyâ€™s most pointed sequences, the filmâ€™s main characters are lifted off the streets to become the prey in an indoor Most Dangerous Game staged for the entertainment of a lavish gathering of the filthy rich, who bid top dollar to do the hunting. (Did I see Don Jr., and Eric among the bidders?) Itâ€™s in scenes like thisâ€”and the church service set-piece in The Purge: Election Year, in which wealthy NFFA loyalists and donors gather to witness the ritual sacrifice of the female senator who, with her abolish-the-Purge platform, threatens to defeat their party in the upcoming electionâ€”that DeMonacoâ€™s films display the kind of class-struggle consciousness thatâ€™s the bedrock of another franchise, The Hunger Games.
We are told in the opening titles of The Purge that the U.S. unemployment rate is now down to one percent and that crime is at an all-time low: the improbable implication is that the country owes its economic prosperity and social well-being to its annual festival of carnage. In The Purge, Hawkeâ€™s character, who has become wealthy through the selling of security systems, maintains â€śThis night saved our country.â€ť â€śPurge,â€ť of course has a double meaning: through the act of killing, participants will supposedly experience a cathartic purgation of hatred and aggression, a cleansing conducive to personal and, by extension, national â€śrenewal.â€ť Itâ€™s no accident that the annual Purge takes place on March 21: itâ€™s the day in the calendar that immediately follows the spring equinox, with its connotations of rebirth. This suggests an underlying ethos thatâ€™s essentially paganâ€”and Christian sentiments are noticeably absent from the rhetoric of the NFFA and its adherents.
But â€śpurgeâ€ť also has racial or caste connotations. The Purgeâ€™s participants are performing a public service by thinning the herd of the socially undesirableâ€”and pretty much anyone else who crosses their path into the bargain. This is bluntly stated in the first film as a dissenting TV newscast criminologist suggests that the Purgeâ€™s true project is â€śthe elimination of the poor, the needy, the sick, those unable to defend themselves, the eradication of the so-called non-contributing members of society, ultimately unburdening the economy.â€ť Race immediately comes to the fore in The Purge with the intrusion of a nameless Black veteran (credited as â€śthe bloody strangerâ€ť and played by Edwin Hodge), who is treated first as a threat and then as prisoner to be tortured, bound, and per the ultimatum of the purgers outside, delivered into their hands for dispatchment; pressed by his wife and kids, Hawke develops moral qualms about this course of action and decides to protect his unfortunate guest by fighting back. Finally, â€śthe bloody strangerâ€ť becomes what can only be described as the familyâ€™s Black savior in its hour of need. (Hodge reprises this nameless role in the second film and is promoted to a character with a name and purpose in the third.)
In The Purge: Anarchy and The Purge: Election Year itâ€™s Black activists who call out the Purgeâ€™s genocidal ulterior purpose and lead the resistance with both media rhetoric and armed force (a role assumed by a Native American community leader in The Forever Purge). The Purge: Election Year also features a good Samaritan â€śtriage vanâ€ť operated by a Black woman and her Latina partner, which patrols the streets picking up the wounded, who are taken to a sanctuary shelter for medical treatment. Going in for the kill, The First Purge is one of the first films of the BLM era. Here the NFFA and its scientists test out a Purge pilot program on Staten Island, soliciting the cooperation of its doubtful population with financial incentives that are hard to pass up. Initially the dusk-to-dawn havoc is mainly confined to the indiscriminate violence of Skeletor (Rotimi Paul), an outlandish neighborhood menace making the most of his hall pass to go all in, and some internecine warfare between rival drug gangs. The experiment is monitored by disinterested scientists and partisan government officials, but the latter covertly deploy a Plan B to rig the experiment when the desired result isnâ€™t obtained, i.e., widespread intercommunal bloodletting. Mercenaries and paramilitary forcesâ€”some patrolling the streets in KKK hoods and led by a merc in a gestapo-style leather trench coatâ€”are unleashed to get the job done by way of a coordinated and systematic extermination operation targeting the Black and Hispanic community in the projects. Indicative of the filmâ€™s inevitable built-in contradictions and not-very-well-thought-out politics, deliverance from this pogrom is at the hands ofâ€¦. the neighborhoodâ€™s drug-dealing kingpin (Yâ€™lan Noel). Itâ€™s a case of out of the frying pan into the fire.
In the business of franchise filmmaking, the producer is king. From Harry Saltzmanâ€™s James Bond series to Kevin Feigeâ€™s Marvel films, the writers will get rewritten, the directors are interchangeable, expendable, and certainly have little or no say over casting or what happens in the editing room. Meanwhile reshoots by other hands are standard operating procedure. In this sense, contemporary Hollywood franchise filmmaking has resurrected the old Hollywood studio system and auteur filmmakers need not apply. As for the Purge producers, what strange bedfellows. Low-budget genre franchises (mostly horror) are the bread and butter of Jason Blumâ€™s Blumhouse company, but why does right-wing blockbuster director Michael Bay have his name on these films as a producer alongside Blum? Most curious of all, thereâ€™s SĂ©bastien Lemercier, the franchiseâ€™s French producer: he was previously responsible for the pretty decent Jean-FranĂ§ois Richet remake of Assault on Precinct 13 (written by DeMonaco) in 2005, under the auspices of the French indie powerhouse Why Not Productions, home to the likes of Arnaud Desplechin, Jacques Audiard, and at least one Claire Denis film.
Yet what makes the Purge franchise a little bit unusual is that its creator has remained at the helm as the director of three and the writer of all five. It may be that DeMonaco sees this franchise, with its deeply pessimistic vision of an America just-around-the-corner (already a reality in some parts), as a personal cri du coeur. As he reflected in a Den of Geek interview, "I'm terrified for my country. So, I think that cynicism seeps into the film. America itself becomes the canvas, instead of the haunted house, the canvas is America. We don't need ghosts or vampires anymore when we're just killing each other.â€ť
And just for the record, hereâ€™s how the onscreen kill statsâ€”which the franchiseâ€™s fans obsess overâ€”stack up against the worldwide grosses:
The Purge (13 deaths) = $89 million
The Purge: Anarchy (34 minimum) = $111.9 million
The Purge: Election Year (61 minimum) = $118.5 million
The First Purge (55 minimum) = $137 million
The Forever Purge (62 minimum) = wait and see/cover your eyes