Spring Breakers - Harmony Korine, 2013
The opening of the film is a perfect indicator of the tone that Korine is going for, and it is one that he has sought throughout his career. Young and semi-naked bodies drinking cheap beer while dancing to a dubstep song on the surface, the portrayal of hedonism is so on-the-nose of what one would expect that it an early indication of the contempt for this lifestyle. Those who take the scene at face value will be perplexed as to what follows, while those who have been following Korine's career will ultimately find that his first mainstream film is little different than his earlier ones.
The four main characters are as vapid and self-obsessed as other young adults of that age, but they are taken to the extreme in their disregard for human life and violence. While their defenses crack when the violence is turned against them, they initially have no problem with terrorizing people and threatening murder. The initial robbery is realistic enough, as the pursuit of pleasure regardless of responsibility pervades spring break culture. The Korinian fever dream really begins when the four girls get to Florida and begin to indulge what they have been waiting for for so long. It is here, however, that Korine subverts the expectations and begins to explore the nihilism of the characters.
The drug dealer Alien enters the film at the halfway mark, save a slight moment in an earlier scene, and the film's biggest weakness is his lack of presence in the first half. He is stubbornly stupid, proudly ignorant, obviously dangerous, and frighteningly silly, but these girls, who at least have enough intelligence to attend college, are mostly drawn to him. It is through him that the girls are able to exert their true emptiness and their lack of empathy for anyone but themselves. While two girls leave to go home because of nervousness for one and a bullet wound for the other, the other two girls decide to abandon their collegiate lifestyle in order to be the mistresses for Alien. While the pleasures of his wealth and power would be exciting to any young person, their endorsement of his lifestyle and their callousness at their friend's injury suggests an even deeper moral decay in the two characters. That they love Alien is not enough of an explanation; something makes them fundamentally different than Faith, although the film does nothing to separate the four girls other than making Faith religious.
Korine's career has been marked with a desire to provoke but never to contextualize or moralize. Korine revels in upending expectations, portraying frank sex, extreme violence, and decadent drug use, but he never does more with these aspects other than titillate. The film decides to touch on race in a way that is hard to accept, and it nags at the film's politics. A film about the wastefulness of American youth is fine enough, but the second half of the film deals with Alien's conflict with his drug dealer kingpin mentor, a man who does little but threaten and look menacing. Alien and his two white assistants are full subscribers of black hip-hop culture, with the chains, the vernacular, and the teeth. Alien explains that he was the only white student in his school, which is a fine enough explanation for his personality, but the finale serves up something else. The remaining girls ruthlessly murder the kingpin and his henchmen, all who happen to be black. Korine is too smart and too provocative to do this accidentally; the blackness of these characters is played against Alien's whitness in earlier scenes. Korine is likely trying to further provoke audiences by having these formerly innocent teenage girls ruthlessly execute a dozen black drug dealers, and it recalls the portrayal of the black boy Buckwheat in his earlier Mister Lonely. It is a sour taste in a film that otherwise has many pleasure. The bizarre juxtaposition of the violent Alien with a white piano and a Britney Spears ballad, the cartoonish nature in which he shows off his material goods in his house, and the sweet voicemails left to grandparents while naked breasts are showered with champagne are all interesting moments. The film suggests that Korine can be harnessing something more interesting than his earlier approach, and this would be a good start.