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To ‘Purge’ or to ‘Hunt,’ That Is the Question

Why ‘The Hunt’ remains superior to the ‘Purge’ franchise.
July 8, 2021
To ‘Purge’ or to ‘Hunt,’ That Is the Question

Sitting in a 95-percent-full theater for a 9:05 p.m. Monday showing of The Forever Purge—theaters are back, baby!—it slowly came to me why the Purge flicks have all been so disappointing.

Here you have this fantastic premise to play with (“What if, for 12 hours once a year, all crime, including murder, were legal in the United States?”) and rather than doing something interesting with that premise and that idea, series writer (and three-time director) James DeMonaco seems content for that answer to be “do as much racism as possible, teehee.”

The “teehee” comes in when he writes lines like the one that describes Americans fleeing the United States for the safety of Mexico as “American Dreamers” (because, you know, that’s what the undocumented kids in America are called, teehee). They’re not actually funny, lines like these, but they makes you think. About the irony of it all.

The Forever Purge has a ripped-from-the-headlines quality to it: set near the U.S.-Mexico border as the annual Purge begins, things go well enough for the families we follow on the evening when all crime is legal. The wealthy white ranchers hide in their home while the destitute Mexican immigrants we saw illegally cross the border in the opening moments huddle in a compound protected by armed mercs making a few quick bucks.

But the Purge is only the beginning of their troubles, as some Purgers have decided to initiate the Forever Purge, continuing the rampage “ever after” until the country is ethnically cleansed of all those damned minorities. The New Founding Fathers (the political party that created the Purge) can’t control the rage they’ve released, and now Einsatzgruppen-style extermination vans roam the streets, gassing random non-whites. Wild stuff, strong “it can’t happen here, or can it?” vibes.

This is just the culmination of the Purge series’ worldview. In the first, a group of wealthy white jerks hunt a homeless black guy for sport. In the sequel, we learn the Purge is being used to clean out minority communities by the government. Neo-Nazis make an appearance in the third. (I haven’t actually seen the fourth entry in this series because, Christ, it was getting tedious.) Regardless, the fifth entry in the series is back to form: The Purge means either getting your racism on or trying to survive the night while racists get their racism on.

And, frankly, it’s kind of boring. Setting aside the weak ideological stakes, the personal stakes might seem high (survive or die!) but in the end merely feel kind of tedious and repetitive.

To wash the taste of The Forever Purge out of my mouth, I threw on my Blu-ray of The Hunt last night and was reminded once again that it’s one of the more underrated flicks of the last few years. Nasty, mean, and often quite funny, with a command performance by Betty Gilpin and a dedication to making every side of the political spectrum at least a little uncomfortable, The Hunt also manages to have some fun with the absurdity of its concept rather than simply banging the same drum.

It remains one of the great self-owns in recent years that—following Donald Trump’s denunciation of the film for featuring so-called “deplorables” being hunted by godless liberal elites, as if the people doing the hunting in a “Most Dangerous Game”-style scenario are ever the heroes—conservatives decided to give this one a pass. Pity. Because if they’d watched they would have found something that deals amusingly and intelligently with, among other things, the danger of judging people based on what they tweet and the dread cancel culture.

Gilpin’s work as the audience surrogate in The Hunt (that is to say, the only sane person in a world surrounded by idiots on both sides) is truly marvelous; she sells the whole thing with a series of eye bulges, flared nostrils, and bit lips to go along with her muddy Mississippi accent. I find it hard to believe the Academy found five performances more worthy of a Best Actress nod than hers.

Then again, this isn’t the sort of picture that gets Oscar nods because this is the sort of picture that makes a joke of progressive filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s social media feed. It is iconoclastic in the truest sense of the word, which makes it dangerous—much more dangerous than the self-flattering delusions at the heart of the Purge movies.

Sonny Bunch

Sonny Bunch is the Culture Editor of The Bulwark. Before serving as editor-in-chief of the film site Rebeller, he was the executive editor of and film critic for The Washington Free Beacon. He is currently a contributor to The Washington Post and his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Commentary Magazine, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. He is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association