It’s got to be the oddest 21st-century blockbuster franchise: a miserable dystopian version of America with no recurring characters, no superpowers, few overt CGIs, nothing supernatural, alien, or androidal. All it’s got is also what’s most troublesome about it: a Grand Theft Auto-style lack of regard for life and death, built into the premise, which is also predicated entirely on the belief that a good percentage of Americans are bloodthirsty, homicidal maniacs.
Then again, as franchise conjectures go, there’s some gin in this cocktail. That the Purge films — five of them now, plus 20 episodes of a TV series — were proudly political from the outset doesn’t make the dynamic easier to parse. What exact sociopolitical postures or functions are being skewered remains a Rorschachian question. Saying the poor will happily kill the poor if the elites let it happen isn’t being awakened to a nuanced reality because we never see beyond child-like binaries. The films always center themselves on bland/good/average non-Purgers caught up in the government-sponsored melee. They’re us, whoever we are, and the Purgers in the franchise’s 25+ hours of run and fight, are almost always them.
The new film, which ostensibly ties up the whole project, goes where you think it must once you’ve thought out the concept a little, post-January 6th. America loves the officially sanctioned Purge so much it decides it has no patience for federal limits, and just keeps on Purgin.’ Anonymously directed by the rather Pynchonesque-ly named TV vet Everardo Gout, the film newly focuses on American hatred for Mexican immigrants and “annoyingly righteous” Indigenous Peoples, which unfortunately puts us in a posh Texas horse ranch run by patriarch Will Patton and his bigot son Josh Lucas, who doesn’t appreciate getting one-upped in bronco-breaking by illegal worker Juan (Tenoch Huerta).
We’ve seen Juan and wife Adela (Ana de la Reguera) cross the border underground before the credits. They are the hard-working, non-Purging protagonists for this one. Surviving the Purge holed up like refugees in a border-camp warehouse in one of the film’s many on-the-nose ironies, they realize the next day that the racism-fueled violence won’t stop. The couple — lumped uncomfortably together with Lucas and his family including pregnant wife Emma (Cassidy Freeman)– are besieged and set running in a repetitive first-person-shooter odyssey in which Lucas’ whiteness gets smudged with a little kumbaya amid the ongoing butchery.
The films’ deft riffs on FOX-y media blather has always been part of its incidental pleasures, but in terms of narrative action, the new movie seems to wish it were Children of Men. Too often, it tumbles into video game heroism and bullshit badassery that the first films never would’ve tolerated; the Mad Max-ish Purger convoy headed off by a Tribal leader shooting arrows strapped to lit sticks of dynamite, for example.
With a budget average of $10 mil each, the first four Purge films raked in over $450 mil, all of them toying with the undeniable idea that most people would to some degree like to be them, not us, indulging in headshots and machete hacks as hundreds of millions enjoy doing on home gaming consoles. The Trump presidency may have changed this. Now that white supremacists have taken to “purging,” there’s very little joy in it and much satisfaction taken in annihilating it. The loss of the ambivalence makes this last film less compelling, if you’re not already exhausted with the same indistinctive casting, story beats, goony gang masks, and heedless gore.
Still, you don’t have to sit through it (especially, please, the cowboy hats) in order to think the franchise, even as it’s tidied itself up, has a point to make. We’re the third-largest population on Earth and we still have more guns than people. We self-mythologize like un-medicated psychotics with a nasty history of thinking that mountains of bodies are part of our way of life as long as they’re not quite white. Is a tipping point really that unlikely? ❖