Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers begins by juxtaposing two very different locations, each a depiction of what might be called the student body. In the first segment, the director flexes his aesthetic muscles with some smoothly hypnotic lateral tracking shots of a barely legal Floridian bacchanal: acres of tanned, toned flesh drenched in sweat and Bacardi. After what feels like an eternity—spring break forever—we switch to shots of students zoning out in a darkened college classroom, eyes drooping in the glow of their laptops. It goes without saying that this second group is having less fun.
The droning, debaucherous verisimilitude of Korine’s beach scenes could be MTV or dirtbag ethnography—or an exercise in satire as tongue-in-cheek as a sunburned tourist going to town on a rapidly melting red-white-and-blue popsicle. The editing, though, suggests something a bit more abstract and poetic: These depraved yet weirdly infantile rituals are projections of the all-American adolescent subconscious, the collective daydream of landlocked girls longing to go wild.
If it seems foolish to impute symbolic ambitions to a movie mostly scored by Skrillex, you’re underestimating the headiness of Spring Breakers. The forbidding space of the lecture hall is also a sign that Korine wants us to put our thinking caps on instead of checking our brains at the proverbial door. Korine always has walked the fine line between stupid and clever: After breaking through in the mid-’90s with the screenplay for Kids—a voyeuristic, hedonistic glimpse at post-AIDS hookup culture crammed with skeezy details and directed by expert leerer Larry Clark—he dared audiences to see him as a nasty genius. Both Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy were plunges into surrealistic weirdness, while Korine’s seemingly drugged-up appearances on Late Show With David Letterman were the stuff of early-internet legend. Trash Humpers, from 2009, was Korine’s most kamikaze endeavor, literalizing its title through grainy scenes of wizened vandals (played under heavy makeup by the director and his friends) making love to various discarded inanimate objects. The goal was to make something akin to a cursed VHS you might pick up at a garage sale; the characters’ repeated, hysterical cries of “Make it! Don’t fake it!” underlined the not-so-secret question of authenticity. If you hump trash hard enough, does that make it art? And can something be art—outsider or otherwise—when it’s in on its own joke?
Having it both ways is Korine’s specialty, which makes him an ideal millennial auteur—a purveyor of the kind of scare-quoted ambivalence (and intellectual ambiguity) that drives some critics to write raves and others up the wall. Spring Breakers is filled with hints that its essential dumbassery is a Trojan horse for Big Ideas: The lecture that Spring Breakers’ affectless (anti)heroines are tuning out during their introduction happens to be about post–Civil War Reconstruction, suggesting an Obama-era America where certain wounds have never healed. One way to look at Korine’s gaudy, dazzlingly obnoxious cinematic object is as a high-wire satire traversing that particular psychic fissure without a net, plunking a gaggle of wayward white chicks under the sway of a narcissistic wanksta Svengali in the middle of a racialized gang war and surveying the damage.
Chaos is seductive, and Spring Breakers’ style exerts a certain pull on even halfway-curious viewers, inviting them down a swirling, discombobulating k-hole of sound and image. It belongs to a tradition of mainstream-adjacent satire that’s shamelessly blatant, gleefully offensive, and provocative to a fault—it’s a descendant of Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls, which similarly burlesqued American beauty (and ugliness) via a literally and figuratively full-frontal assault on good taste. The difference is that where Showgirls alienated audiences off the top, Spring Breakers and its then-fledgling distributor, A24, attempted to proceed directly to the cult canon. By previewing the film on the festival circuit—first with an excerpt at Cannes, and then in competition at Venice—before the inevitable spring-break-timed theatrical release, A24 generated buzz in tastemaking circles and shored up critical credibility in a way that Verhoeven’s film never did.
Where Trash Humpers pivoted on the fault line between pastiche and authenticity, Spring Breakers requires meditation on the relationship between smartness and stupidity. According to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous dictum, the test of a first-rate intelligence is being able to hold two opposing concepts in mind at the same time. But for Fitzgerald, contradiction was a prerequisite for equilibrium. Korine isn’t interested in balance: His goal is synaptic overload—the cinematic equivalent of galaxy brain.
“Consider This Shit,” blared A24’s viral Oscar campaign, drawing attention to the scene in which James Franco’s tatted-up rapper-guru-drug-dealer, Alien, takes his costars on a guided tour of his wardrobe and weapons collection, which revises The Great Gatsby by way of Cribs and powers through the cognitive dissonance via the actor’s uncanny charisma. At one point, he’s like a post–Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle: “I got shurikens,” he drawls, luxuriating in every syllable. “I got them sais. Look at that sheeyit. I got sais. I got blades.” As the monologue goes on, Alien shape-shifts from Jay Gatsby to Tyler Durden, ranting about fallen comrades and the American dream; the line between a for-your-consideration clip and an outtake shimmers, blurs, and is erased altogether. For better or for worse, it’s the part this actor was born to play. Whether one takes Franco’s sleazy performance-artist shtick in Spring Breakers as inventive comic acting or a foreshadowing of his unsettling off-camera transgressions, the movie would be nothing without him; besides embodying and satirizing Gatsby-esque largesse—and more or less impersonating goofy hip-hopper Riff Raff—this preening, posturing, and ultimately in-over-his-head douchebag could be a stand-in for Korine himself.
Certainly, there’s a self-reflexive aspect to the way Alien recruits BFFs Brit (Ashley Benson), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Faith (Selena Gomez), and Cotty (Rachel Korine) after they hit the coast; in bailing these pliable, stoned newcomers out of lockup with promises of hedonistic bliss, he could just as easily be a star-making filmmaker. Of course, part of the point of Spring Breakers—and an even greater semiotic triumph than the casting of Franco—is that the girls (minus Mrs. Korine) were, at the time of filming, already stars: tween idols eagerly exploiting and exploding their family-friendly images. Spiritually speaking, Spring Breakers is a movie made under the sign of Miley Cyrus, whose liberated, sex-positive post–Hannah Montana persona felt, then and now, like an inspiration for Korine’s casting choices. He was ahead of the curve on Gomez, who’s matured into a comedian who holds her own with Steve Martin and Martin Short on Only Murders in the Building, but in terms of screen time, she’s very much the fourth wheel here; in another one of Korine’s bluntly symbolic gestures, it’s her character, Faith, who blows town early after resisting Alien’s advances. Not since Showgirls’ screenwriter, Joe Eszterhas, saddled Elizabeth Berkley with the oh-so-deconstructable moniker of Nomi Malone has a name carried more weight as a conceptual pun—it’s only after losing Faith that the gang hits their stride as shit disturbers, terrorizing St. Petersburg to the strains of Franco’s hoarse-voiced rendition of Britney Spears’s tremulously self-pitying piano ballad “Everytime.”
The use of sinisterly contrapuntal music cues is nothing new: Like most Gen Xers, Korine saw and absorbed Reservoir Dogs and A Clockwork Orange. But the “Everytime” montage remains indelible because its dissonance is woven into the larger theme of appropriation—of characters who refuse to stay in their lanes and end up swerving perilously into political incorrectness. It’s hard to tell whether Alien’s (and Korine’s) love for Britney is sarcastic or sincere, and the performance suggests it’s a little bit of both—a grotesquely affectionate cover. The scene is cute, but it’s hardly harmless: As the sequence goes on, we see the girls, now clad in Pussy Riot–style balaclavas, committing armed robberies against people of color, seemingly in thrall to Alien’s influence but also pushed further into the realm of their own fantasies. It’s a fine line between aggressive, guns-blazing feminism and nightmarish neo–white supremacy, and as Franco’s voice gets replaced in the mix by Spears’s, the implication is as broadly sociological as that of Patrick Bateman’s Huey Lewis appraisal in American Psycho. This is millennial poptimism as rampaging id, an insatiable viciousness masquerading as fragile naivete. Even as Spears sings, “This song’s my sorry,” the vibe is defiantly unapologetic.
To the extent that Spring Breakers has a plot, it resolves itself in the battle between Alien and his ex-pal-slash-rival Big Arch, embodied by Gucci Mane in a performance so natural it barely feels conscious (and rumors did circulate that Gucci wasn’t even awake during the filming of a crucial scene). Writing in Slate, Aisha Harris interpreted the climactic raid on Big Arch’s lair, in which the girls mow down multiple members of his posse, as the culmination of the director’s dubious sociology. “Korine may intend the obviousness of the racial divide to be provocative,” she wrote, “but he fails to comment in any interesting way on this so-called ‘hyper-reality,’ instead merely reproducing a racist vision of the world in which black lives matter less than white ones.”
This description is accurate, although it fails to account for some of Korine’s formal choices. Harris cites The New Yorker’s observation that the black-light backdrop makes it look like the white characters are in blackface, although it’s equally arguable that the high-contrast cinematography makes it seem like they’re wearing luminescent white hoods—less Pussy Riot than the KKK. The tender, sacramental farewell for the fallen Alien throws the lack of consideration for the dead Black bodies around him into startling relief—it forces you to ask whether the indifference belongs to the characters, the director, or the audience. The final shot literally turns the frame upside down, suggesting a social (or moral) hierarchy thrown wildly out of order, with the spring breakers running out of frame and into the black.
“We see things different now,” insists Faith during a phone call home to her grandmother earlier in the film, which Korine repurposes during the climax in sardonic counterpoint to his gory, apocalyptic imagery. “More colors, more love, more understanding.” The startling abruptness of Spring Breakers’ ending could be taken as evasive or a cop-out—a hint that Korine’s relentlessly chopped-and-screwed opus doesn’t have anything to say. It could also be a sign of the confidence of a filmmaker who thinks he’s pretty much said it all already, and whose willingness to be misunderstood goes hand in hand with his shock tactics. Ultimately, whether Spring Breakers is a great movie or an uncommonly accomplished bit of fraudulence is an eye of the beholder thing, but there’s something to be said for a film that somehow captures and enshrines an era’s attention-deficit aesthetic while earning (and rewarding) sustained contemplation. Consider this shit.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.