Four girls with dreams of freedom and novelty cruise into Florida. Three of them have robbed a diner to fund the trip, and all of them are arrested when things get too out of hand. Bailed out by a local thug-come-rapper calling himself Alien, the four get wrapped up in a world of money and very real danger. This is what you learn about Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers from the trailers, and those details effectively represent the vast majority of the plot. This all unfolds following a prologue of sorts made up of precisely the kind of debauched footage you would expect to see from an uncensored MTV spring break special –bouncing breasts, dudebros in sunglasses, keg stands– all dialed up to 11, captured in slow-motion, and cut to Skrillex’s Scary Monsters And Nice Sprites (the elctro artist’s first hit, and the crossover track that took dubstep mainstream).
At first blush, this footage would not look out of place in a Girls Gone Wild video, and yet in Korine’s hands it quickly becomes part of something bigger and darker. What we are actually witnessing is Korine’s Boschian rendering of a perpetual, fleshy hell of dancing, liquor-splattered bodies- one set of abs interchangeable with the next head of blonde hair. This image intrudes on the film repeatedly –like the hook of a song– suggesting a sort of perpetual, mindless plane of existence. A drunken, horny Nirvana. A spray-tanned Valhalla. It is the nightmare of every parent being fed lies from the other end of a phone call, and the ultimate American Dream of too many post-MTV teenagers and twenty-somethings. It is an absolute rejection of responsibility, a state of being without hope.
This is Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, and it is brilliant. Oh yes it is.
While certainly Korine’s most narrative feature to date, Spring Breakers takes on as expressive a form as any film the director has ever made. The film doesn’t unfold so much as undulate, progressing through its story consistently, but with a time-shifted affectation. Dialogue repeats, images dance back and forth, with single shots fading in and out as harbingers of what is to come. We meet our girls in their college town, begin to understand their goals, their lives, their boredom. At first the four girl’s dynamic is that of a Greek Chorus of danger and temptation surrounding a chaste central figure- a prayer group-participating darling named, of course, Faith (Selena Gomez). She is the first to reject the situation once they’re in Florida, in trouble, and in the world of Alien (James Franco). The other three are immediately enraptured by Alien, who revels in showing off his shit- hats, shoes, guns, stacks of money, all in ludicrous amounts. Two of the four connect with Alien on a deeper level, sharing moments of kinky power reversal and shared ambitions for some indefinable dream: danger, I suppose. Maybe just the chance to feel anything at all once faith and self-preservation have taken the bus home.
There is a moment in Harmony Korine’s dreamy debaucharama when Gucci Mane –playing a real-deal drug lord and crime boss– stands before his estranged friend, the thugged-out James Franco, and, with evident disdain, utters something to the effect of, “I taught you everything you know.” It’s in this moment that Korine speaks to us most clearly, pointing at the ocean of subtext and cynicism lapping like waves against the film. There is a hideous, distorted representation of a generation, of a mindset at play. Witness this generation of privileged white kids appropriating the posture of the hood, gobbling up a plastic culture they’ve allowed themselves to be defined by. It all coats emptiness. Perhaps most damning is a moment of sublime, transcendent beauty and connection for Alien and his girls- their souls moved together by collectively singing a melodramatic Britney Spears track. This is the pinnacle of art and emotion for these people- a melody more meaningful than any ever played in any church.
Korine and his cinematographer Benoît Debie (known best for his work with Gaspar Noe) paint this story in garish neons and hyper-saturated daylight scenes. The camera is handheld, probing, and outright gross. As the girls prance and pose, the camera’s view darts for a look at their asses or drifts to a crotch if one bends over or legs are spread. Imagine having a 14 year old boy following around four uncomfortably gorgeous women in bikinis and tapping an HD stream off of his optic nerve- this is Korine’s camera. It makes no effort to control itself. His soundtrack is explosive- cuts accentuated by guns being cocked and shot, dialogue breezily spilling over scenes before and after its actually uttered. Cliff Martinez contributes his already iconic pulsing tones and synthetic melodies, effortlessly integrating work from Skrillex as well.
There’s no easy subtext or metaphor to which you can pin Spring Breakers, but there is a ton of it, sealing it as a powerful, evocative and targeted work of transgressive pop art. Though it is too propulsive to wallow, it explores a cynically distorted painting of Millenial irresponsibility, suggesting this generation –my generation– has accepted cheaper and cheaper dreams to the point that nothing but getting fucked up and cavorting to screeching, hellish noise offers them anything. Is Korine characterizing us or warning us against reaching this hideous conclusion? One wherein there is nothing left but pure flesh and sensation, all art reduced to pure, soulless stimulation, or nostalgia for cultural simulacra that barely resembled real emotion long ago.
It’s an uncomfortable feeling to have Korine point his nightmare machine at you (not me- I’m boring. But my contemporaries…), especially when the result is so blisteringly compelling. This is the most important film yet made for this generation- one that has needed a Vonnegut but have gotten only a Pahlaniuk. Fortunately or unfortunately Korine has come along to make a beautiful, damming spectacle of it all, speaking in his own singular cinematic language to do so. It’s the kind of movie that is outwardly simple, but so internally sophisticated that it took half a career to get to this lurid masterpiece.
I dare you to dismiss this film. I dare you to expel Franco’s bizarre, joyless groan, “spring breaaaaak,” from your head even days later.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars