By casting some Disney debutantes as bikini bandits, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers would seem intent on pure sensationalism. The opening montage consists of drunken, ripe flesh on the beach, college kids dancing in slo-mo to Skrillex, doing beer bongs and smoking dope, girls flashing their tits. Amer’ca—fuck yeah! It’s so ridiculously trashy that you know Korine—writer of Kids, director of Gummo and Trash Humpers—is thinking beyond Girls Gone Wild. Then he introduces our four bored heroines, too broke for spring break, who embark on a crime spree leading to St. Petersburg, a charismatic drug dealer (James Franco), gunfire, blood, and remorse.
“It seems like a dream,” one of the girls repeatedly muses. Korine repeats most of their lines like incantations as his film woozily drifts forward and back. Spring Breakers has an elliptical structure of dreamy recurrence and foreboding. (Korine butts his scenes together with the angry sound of a gun cocking, suggesting violence ahead.) To psych themselves up for glamorous misdeeds, they chant, “Act like you’re in a movie. Pretend it’s a video game.” Florida first appears like paradise to Brit (Ashley Benson), Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), and Cotty (Rachel Korine, the director’s wife). They’ve got money, mopeds, boys, booze, and drugs. It’s a debauched paradise, with swooning red sunsets leading to hectic, all-night house parties. After one of those parties goes too far, the girls are bailed out of jail by a local hustler named Alien, played by Franco in the most interesting and committed performance of the new year.
Where to begin with Alien? He’s a dangerous, über-skeezy clown. He drives a shitty, blinged-out old Camaro Z28 with the license plate “BALLR.” He’s got cornrows and a full grill in his mouth, tats all over his body, Skrillex shades, a house full of weapons, drugs, and vintage sneakers, and an outdoor grand piano by the pool. (Which he plays, yes, in an entirely earnest Britney Spears ballad with the girls.) Alien is, thanks to Franco, like some sort of Weimar cabaret figure crossed with Vanilla Ice: completely artificial and implausible, a white boy trying to be black, a weakling trying to be tough, a guy as deeply committed to fantasy as his four houseguests are.
And the source of those fantasies? Movies and TV. This is Korine’s big, borrowed insight, which goes back further than Jean-Luc Godard: Alien and his cohort are modeling themselves on media images. As characters (and here the actresses’ limitations work in Korine’s favor), that’s why they’re flatter than the flattest TV screen. The girls are posers, and so is Alien. Leading them through a Cribstyles of the Rich and Famous tour of his home, he boasts, “I got Scarface on repeat. It’s constant, y’all!”
He is, truly, living the media-fed dream. And so are the girls—until churchgoing Faith loses her nerve. (“This is not what I signed up for!”) Then Alien’s menacing rival appears. Guns are pulled and shots fired. Spring Breakers finally breaks its fairy-tale reverie, though the violence and sex are never particularly graphic. Korine isn’t interested in realism here. This is more the story of four debauched Dorothys in a hellish Oz. In this regard, Spring Breakers benefits from the release of Franco’s other spring fantasy picture.
Hazy, trippy, and impressionistic, Spring Breakers’ look transcends its thesis and gossamer story. In the best move (and movie) of his career, Korine chose Belgian cinematographer Benoît Debie (Enter the Void, Irréversible) to render St. Pete in a tropical miasma of color. The light turns watery in a late-night rave. Earlier, 100 laptop screens illuminate a college lecture hall. A harsh sun casts moral judgment on the poolside bacchanalia. Twin blonde killers strut on a neon catwalk, upside down, wearing pink ski masks and yellow bikinis. It’s like the Baader-Meinhof Gang turning their Uzis on the front row at Fashion Week. (Gwyneth, look out!)
Although Franco eventually wears us out with Alien’s swampwater monologues, and though Korine’s cultural critique is hardly fresh, Spring Breakers has a welcome, bracing sting to it—the pungent clarity of disgust. Korine’s constant rewinding loses the film its narrative momentum, but maybe that’s the point. There will always be new girls on spring break, more guys like Alien, more shameful episodes uploaded to YouTube and Instagram. It’s constant, y’all.