Title: Spring Breakers
Genre(s): Comedy, Crime, Drama
Director(s): Harmony Korine
Release Year: 2013
“Whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” The same can be said for Florida in Spring Breakers, Harmony Korine’s latest transgressive foray on the silver screen. The infamous enfant terrible of American cinema has returned with a sharp slice of satire aimed directly at the fist-pumping, loud-mouthed and over-partying generation of today. Reveling in its glitzy, neon-tinted excess from start to finish, Spring Breakers, in both content and marketing, finely showcases Korine’s troll-ish qualities as a filmmaker; by utilizing the very icons of the generation it lampoons and satirizes (former Disney Channel starlets Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez, and the brostep anthems of Skrillex), Korine has not only managed to sneak an arthouse film right into larger multiplexes but has also fooled that very demographic by luring them under a guise. The result is an audacious, hyper-kinetic and dreamlike trip through a troubled generation’s idiocy, indicting the sub-culture and the very films about them (Project X, 21 & Over) by holding up a mirror. As an extreme, debased and striking warning call, Spring Breakers hits the proverbial nail on the head more often than it misses it.
While the pursuit of happiness and the often tragically ambiguous “American Dream” remain a staple of American crime films, Spring Breakers differs in its approach and execution of the theme. Brit (Benson), Candy (Hudgens), Cotty (Korine) and Faith (Gomez) are seemingly normal, every day college students, anxiously anticipating a Spring Break filled with non-stop partying and debauchery. For the aptly named Faith, the most reserved of the vixens, this means a chance at letting loose and experiencing something entirely new. Things don’t go quite as planned however, the girls coming up well short of their projected trip budget and, given how deeply important this trip to Florida is to them, Brit, Candy and Cotty resort to the only logical solution; robbing a local fast food joint using hammers and painted squirt guns. While startled, Faith nonetheless tags along for the trip, reaching the sunny, naked streets of Florida and indulging in its hazy, dreamlike aura before suddenly landing in a jail cell. After being bailed out by a sleazy, degenerate rapper named Alien (Franco) who also happens to be one of the city’s biggest gangsters, their inhibitions are tested and their vacation takes on a whole new meaning. By tackling Spring Break as a tradition and, more importantly, a way of life, Korine exposes the ugliness, depravity and recklessness masquerading as a remedy for boredom in his subjects to excessive and often darkly humorous degrees. In these artificialities, the girls attempt to escape the banalities of life by finding a more physically invigorating pace filled with hyperactive nonsense and shallow surfaces. In other words, Spring Breakers points at your obnoxious “bro” neighbor and makes you realize just how stupid he can be when he’s simply looking to have some fun.
Of course, all of this probably wouldn’t work so well were it not for the film’s deliberately surreal and dreamy foundations; through its fragmented, Malick-ian narrative, its abuse of repetition and a handful of experimental aesthetic directions that sometimes recall some of his past work, Korine ensures Spring Breakers is not your traditional crime film. The repetition in particular, which will drive some absolutely crazy, works tremendously in robbing the wild, Floridian setting of its beauty and grandeur and transforming it into a rather depressing sight, all the while illustrating the emptiness in its characters’ words. An exclamation as simple and as seemingly innocent as “Spring Break Forever” soon becomes much more disquieting than it should be once neon ski masks and automatic weaponry are thrown into the mix, let alone when it’s repeated throughout the film’s second half. By stripping the party life of its visual appeal through repetition, the girls have essentially left their mundane student lives to escape to a visually stimulating yet equally mundane world full of horrible people; it’s in moments like these that Malick’s influence really shines through, using its characters’ own narrative voices to dictate their poetic musings, or in this case, the sudden realization of the blandness and artifice around them. As dark as Spring Breakers gets however, it never forgets where it’s firmly planted, lending the film a deliberately over the top and expressively loony satirical edge.
If its “liquid narrative” screams Malick, Spring Breakers’ visuals bring the works of Gaspar Noé to mind, specifically 2009’s psychedelic Enter the Void; Benoît Debie, Noé’s famed cinematographer, just so happens to be behind the camera here as well, bringing to Korine’s film a similarly halucinogenic and kaleidoscopic take on reality. The combination proves resoundingly successful, injecting an unprecedented amount of life and dreaminess into party scenes that otherwise wouldn’t feel very out of place in a raunchy teen comedy. Debie vividly brings to life what these crazy young girls are concurrently living, not only putting us in the moment with them but also showing it through their initially captivated and joyful perspectives and the eventual downfall that accompanies it. While one could arguably debate the legitimacy of the film’s script or its filmmaker’s intentions, Debie’s work here is just as impressive as ever and evades criticism through its sheer beauty. The same can be said for its sound department, which carefully uses repetitive audio samples (gun cocks and shots, whispered narration, etc.) to heighten the world’s dangerous undercurrent. The film’s soundtrack, an ambient electronic score by both Cliff Martinez (Drive) and brostep poster child Skrillex, works symbiotically with the film’s visuals and enhances its loose grasp on reality. One of the better examples of this comes in one of the film’s early party montages, in which Skrillex’s hit single “Scary Monsters & Nice Sprites” booms over footage of lewd debauchery and non-stop partying; as the visuals begin taking a turn for the worst, the song follows suit, with the low end of the song fading into obscurity and only the song’s melody to underscore the events. And to those who dislike Skrillex’s music, his input is virtually indistinguishable from Martinez’s here, which is to say it’s admirably restrained and quite beautiful at times.
Spring Breakers also features relatively solid work from its cast, with all of its teen starlets providing relatively admirable turns by pulling a 180° turn on their past experiences. While it’s likely Hudgens and Gomez were simply cast due to their status as the Disney Channel idols, serving as a piece of Korine’s grander puzzle, they nonetheless provide competent work in between the bong hits and pervasive drinking. Gomez’s Faith in particular stands out as the film’s voice of innocence, believably portrayed as an unsure Christian who reluctantly wishes to experience something new. It’s by no means a star-making turn, but Gomez creates an immediately likable and relatable character in Faith. The film belongs to James Franco however, who hits it out of the park with his maniacally narcissistic turn as Alien. A character so excessively materialistic and flamboyant as to compensate for his lack of real courage, Alien is a bewildering joy to watch onscreen, dominating just about every scene with immediately quotable lines. Given the gargantuan amount of projects Franco juggles around every year, it’s often disappointing just how lifeless and unimpressive he tends to be in nearly all of them, seemingly phoning it in more often than not. In Spring Breakers, Franco delivers his most dedicated work to date, disappearing under his ridiculous guise and becoming a hilarious monstrosity of a character in search of the American Dream. It’s a commanding performance that’s made all the more addictive by its unpredictability; one hilarious scene has Alien hyperactively listing off all of his belongings to Brit and Candy, from a colorful array of shorts to a large catalogue of assault rifles, before suddenly shifting gears into what will go down as one of the year’s most gloriously deranged moments. He lives Scarface, going so far as to play it on repeat on one of his numerous televisions, despite occasionally caving in to his fears, especially when confronted by his rival Big Arch, played by Gucci Mane, who simply seems to be living before Korine’s camera. Gucci is no actor for obvious reasons (he’s absolutely insane. Just look at his criminal record.) but he fits nicely with the film’s host of crazy gangbangers and wild teenagers, all things considered. If anything at all, he fares a lot better than the RZA as far as acting chops go. Make of that what you will.
There’s no denying it, Spring Breakers is a glorious coup by its director; marketed as the very thing it so aptly mocks, the film lured an entire demographic under false pretense using its star power and promises of loud, unabashed partying, making a 2:1 profit in its opening week. What they got simply flew over their heads, as evidenced by the numerous incendiary reactions by young teens feeling ripped off and cheated. It’s all quite humorous and indicative that Korine hasn’t lost his prankster sensibilities, and generally highlights just what the film condemns; a need for solace in lewd artificialities and surfaces. While it definitely isn’t perfect, Spring Breakers is nonetheless a mightily impressive experiment in genre subversion and a welcome return from one of American cinema’s more unique voices. Sure, it’s stinging social commentary can feel a bit heavy-handed at times and its repetition will no doubt drive many away, but when a film manages to make a heist montage set to Britney Spears’ “Everytime” seem jaw-dropping, almost tear-jerkingly beautiful, it’s kind of hard to fault it. Welcome back, Korine.