Harmony Korine has built a career by alienating audiences. Kids (1995), a portrait of New York City’s drug-addled youth subculture—which Korine wrote when he was just 18 years old—was aggressively uncomfortable to watch. His directorial debut, Gummo (1997), followed teenagers in Xenia, Ohio, killing cats, sniffing glue, and having sex with prostitutes. Then came julien donkey boy, about a schizophrenic who impregnates his sister. These films are half art house cinema, half aesthetic stunt.1 Their commitment to unclassifiability makes it nearly impossible to assess them. It is never clear whether Korine is denouncing our cultural vices or participating in them. Sometimes this makes for compelling, effective art, but it has never been more problematic than in his latest film, Spring Breakers. Here he delivers the same brutish exhibitionism. But now that all the smut is lacquered with Hollywood gloss, it can be hard to tell just how much is underneath.
Spring Breakers,which opens this Friday in wide release, is typically lurid and strange. Its protagonists are four college co-eds determined to spend spring break in Florida: Cotty, Brit, Candy, and Faith, played, respectively, by Korine’s wife, Rachel Korine; Ashley Benson of ABC Family’s “Pretty Little Liars”; and former Disney stars Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez. When finances prove prohibitively tight, they pull on ski masks and rob a fast-food restaurant. “Pretend like it’s a video game. Act like you’re in a movie or something,” one of the girls coaxes the others beforehand. We watch the hold-up from the vantage point of their getaway car, the scene framed in the restaurant’s window like a silent film reel. Once on the road, they throw their heads back and scream with animal excitement. “It’s more than just Spring Break,” Faith says later. “It’s our chance to see something different.”
Once again, Korine shows us the American youth experience in extremis: decadent, ecstatic, dangerous. The spring break beach scenes are psychedelic orgies of oily bodies and beer bongs and pounding pop music, a sea of faces lost in drunken bliss. “Take it like a stripper,” a male spring breaker tells one of the girls as she writhes half-naked on the floor beneath a stream of beer. Sex is never just between two people, and certainly never tender or intimate—just an aggressive clash of bodies.
Korine shows us the American youth experience in extremis: decadent, ecstatic, dangerous.
Not that the main characters are much more individualized than the hordes on the beach. Cotty, Brit, and Candy are perfectly hollow, interchangeable pin-up blondes in cut-off shorts and trucker hats. The closest thing to human in the film is Selena Gomez’s Faith, the only one of the bunch who is at all morally troubled by her friends' increasingly debauched activities, and the first to flee the scene. But even she is unusually clichéd by Korine’s standards, nursing her Bible and tremulously eyeing the degeneracy around her. The film’s only truly compelling character is Alien (James Franco), a drug dealer and rapper who bails the foursome out of jail after they are arrested on drug charges. Franco is a lone ray of brilliance here. He is at once seductive and repellent, his gangster sleaze somehow monstrously specific. Alien represents a perverted American Dream: For him, money is stripped of meaning; his only driving force is a lethal acquisitiveness. At one point, the girls sit on his bed amid piles of bills as Alien takes inventory of his possessions: the designer shirts, the Calvin Klein perfume, the nunchuks, the guns. “Look at my shit,” he says, grinning.
It is easy to see why Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens—struggling to slough off the Disney princess rep—would have wanted these roles, but in the end the film does not complicate their images so much as exploit them. The movie benefits from the sugar-coated celebrity that trails them, but it lends them no new density. The actresses are simply props in Korine’s game of pop cultural allusions. But Franco’s Alien adds texture.2 In his bilious smile with its flashing grill is a rare spark of self-awareness. When he tells the girls, “I was the one white boy in my whole neighborhood,” he nods to an invisible history of racial and socioeconomic strife. He is the only character who seems to know he is playing a part.
But even as Alien hints at such subtext, the film is mostly concerned with surface. Several phrases echo eerily throughout the film, like a bad pop hook that sticks in the brain, its lyrics gradually emptied of meaning: “It’s more than just spring break,” “Let’s get that fucking cash and go on spring break,” “Spraanng Break foreverrr,” in Alien’s creaky drawl. If Korine’s other films have at times suffered from too much obliqueness, the message of Spring Breakers is garishly obvious: Korine clearly intended to blur the boundary between his own art and the mass-produced art he is critiquing, to give us pop mythology dismembered and rebuilt as a Frankenstein’s monster of Billboard Top 100 songs and teen idols and Forever 21 bikinis. In one scene, the four girls belt out boozy renditions of pop songs in an empty parking lot; in another, they sing more pop songs on a bench. “This is about way more than having a good time,” Faith says, over and over again. Korine is always heavy-handed in his imagery, but his themes have never been quite so blunt.
With its comparatively high production value and star-studded cast, its buzzing neon tube lights, and phantasmagoric music-video-esque montages, Spring Breakers feels slicker than the rest of Korine’s work.3 But, in the end, the film fails because its suave, efficient nastiness leaves our feelings disengaged. It alienates without the undertow of real pain that gave his earlier films their terrible sting. In Kids, all that aimless drugged-out hedonism culminates in the devastating rape of Chloë Sevigny’s Jennie, newly infected with HIV. Gummo finds an oddly sympathetic protagonist in the character of Solomon, who has become a kind of tragic figure by the end of the film. julien donkey boy ends with a desolate scene in which Julien clutches his sister’s dead baby and weeps. These films disarmed with their bizarreness before yanking viewers close for a final, wrenching confrontation with a difficult emotional truth. But there is a glibness to Spring Breakers that leaves the film weirdly light and free of consequences, as conventional as the pop cultural tropes it sets out to dismantle. It has lost the roughness that made Korine’s earlier films feel like small, ugly acts of sedition.
In one scene late in the film, Alien croons along to Britney Spears as he sits on his patio by his pool, the beach and the darkening sky spread out like a nightmarish postcard behind him. The girls dance in a circle wearing bikinis and pink ski masks, spinning machine guns like batons. Then they set off on a murderous final mission, at Alien’s side. The ending is pure Hollywood in its elaborateness and its sensationally elevated stakes. Shots of bloated corpses floating in a swimming pool cut to spring breakers reveling on a beach. The typical Korine queasiness gives way to the dutiful resolution of plot, with a persistent air of cool detachment. “I think that’s the secret to life—being a good person. I’m gonna do better now,” one of the blondes says on the phone with her mom toward the end of the film, unconvincingly. So the girls will be alright, perhaps, or they will go on destroying themselves, in obscene and fantastic ways. Either way, we have little incentive to care.