To Live and Die on Spring Break

Spring Breakers (2013)     ★★★★ 1/2

Written & Directed by Harmony Korine (A24)

If you were to have told me that the most compelling film of early 2013 would star Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine, I would’ve asked you to stop trolling. But that, to use an overused internet term, is an accurate description of what indie filmmaker Harmony Korine has accomplished with his first “mainstream” movie, being marketed to the same audience that craves a romanticism of teenage debauchery in the blindingly stupid genre of Project X and 21 and Over, when in fact, it is an extremely dark satire of an equally tiresome pop culture, one that praises the primitive extremes we dream of throughout young adulthood. Many will be baffled, while Korine, meanwhile, cashes a substantial check for his film made with a mere $5 million.

What Spring Breakers essentially does is take the party-centric insanity viewers come to expect, turn it up to unprecedented extremes, and place it within a decisively artful piece of exploitation cinema. This is accomplished through snatching the young actresses that the filmmakers have devilishly stolen from Disney fare, manipulating them for an exploration of the overused “good girls gone bad” mantra, and instead of including them in a setting of the lighthearted escapism associated with such films, dropping them in a cinematic hell; a candy-colored funhouse of drugs, sex, alcohol, and soon enough, bullets that tear flesh and spill blood. The tone often feels reminiscent of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, which is in part due to the unsettling, electronica score by Cliff Martinez, while as obligation, Skrillex and Britney Spears also make key contributions.

This music carries us through the shockingly hedonistic “spring break” of four college girls, who rob a diner in order to obtain enough cash for the greatest week of their lives. They are shallow and trashy, with the slight exception of Gomez as a churchgoing babe named Faith (you may now begin to see how this film gets its kicks). In fact, they seem so desensitized to party culture that the violent, way illegal “next step” seems like no big deal; knocking off a restaurant comes naturally, almost as if they have become so accustomed to the viewing of such material as Project X that it has now taken form in their own lives. They almost seem to recognize they are in a movie, and strut their “nothing is off limits” mentality for our own sick amusement.

And then James Franco, as a rapper/drug dealer/general gangsta named Alien who enters the scene, he takes this thing to a whole ‘nother level. Franco, disappearing behind dreadlocks and quite a few tats, is hysterical in one of the most transformative performances of his career. Even as the film descends from dark comedy into unremitted action-horror, the twisted humor provided by his character rings true throughout. Shot by Benoit Debie of Irreversible and Enter the Void, Korine’s film is quite the trip; a colorful, quick-cut, sometimes handheld, noisy, slomo-driven drug that never lets you come down. That said, much of the story is told through editing, montage-style sequences driving the narrative from place to place, rather than relying on traditional story elements, dialogue, and transition scenes. The girls’ meandering dialogue is often overlaid on top of the startling imagery, lines often repeated several times, bludgeoning into our heads the repetitive nature of a cultural rut our American youth has been subjected to – a spring break that we have yet to escape. The experimental nature of the film will no doubt confuse mainstream audiences, but as crazy as it may seem, that effect on several moviegoers is necessary in order for Korine’s project to work and have long-standing impact.

Spring Breakers is a film that finds ugliness in beautiful things, and beauty in things that are ugly; horror in comedy, and comedy in horror. By taking Barbie dolls and turning them into gun-toting minions of Satan, Harmony Korine has found a platform that is undeniable simple, yet is extraordinarily thought-provoking and fun. It’s an uncomfortable experience, but also rewarding for those willing to look past the surface of teasing hotties. It’s also damn cool. One would think that if these girls actually stopped to look around a bit more often, maybe they would find something about the world that they have been seeking in their never-ending quest for thrills; maybe, in effect, they could actually find something meaningful in themselves. Instead, Korine straps their ignorance into a roller coaster of the superficial, leaving audiences to wonder, and hopefully fear – has our culture actually gone this far?