I admit that I was thoroughly unprepared for SPRING BREAKERS. What at first glance promised to be trashy entertainment in the vein of latter-day exploitation films (lent an extra dimension of viciousness by its casting of pop-culture princesses Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez), instead offers a grim, at-times unsettling fever-dream of disconnected reality. In spite of the pedigree of Harmony Korine, it wasn’t until the moment the title cards landed on the screen that I was sure that SPRING BREAKERS wasn’t quite what I’d signed up for.
And that’s not a bad thing, either. Korine has crafted a film that is easily one of the most bizarre and compelling of the year, and it’s difficult to sift through what, if anything, the film is trying to accomplish. It’s clear from the get-go that it’s a feverish nightmare, a sick and perverted take on the American Dream that finds a way to make beautiful young people partying at the beach seem sinister and horrifying. The moment the dub-step kicks in in the opening scene and the beat drops behind freakishly excessive students having the time of their lives [note: the score is partially composed by one Sonny Moore (a.k.a. Skrillex), and it’s unlikely that will be a better pairing of musician to film this year], the hilariously dark tone of the film is set; a tone from which Korine never wavers.
Make no mistake: SPRING BREAKERS is a funny, funny movie; it’s just borderline-gallows humor. There’s something delightfully compelling about just how messed up what is happening on-screen is, despite the fact that Korine never allows the film to delve into visceral excess – something for which I am thankful for, as my uneasiness was palpable throughout in spite of the lack of violent gratuity. Had there been a more gratuitous exploration of that excess, I might not have been able to stomach it at all.
The film looks fantastic: the cinematography, the lighting and the editing all combine together to make a beautiful fantasy from which nothing can escape – least of all the characters. There’s a revelry to the entire affair that mirrors the state of mind of these psychologically disturbed young women, as Korine edits wildly around mesmerizing compositions: moments from the first act are further contextualized in the final one, and if it weren’t for the apparent linearity of the story, one might get the feeling that the film was being shown out of order. But the hallucinatory form of the film gives Korine free-reign to do whatever he pleases, and so he jumps around constantly, splicing in contextually relevant moments before their scenes have even appeared. And as malleable as the structure of the scenes are in the hands of the filmmaker, there’s never a sense of haphazardness.
Audio choices are atypical, as well. Music cues are repeated in varied arrangements, dialogue becomes a whispering, droning, repetitive sneer which loops back on itself over and over – first to progress the plot, then repeated ad nauseum until all sense of reality is lost, and the meaning behind the words twists and distorts until everything sounds like the Devil whispering in your ear.
The film isn’t perfect, however. There are a lot of issues that come out of the film in its second half, particularly because of the disjointed nature of the plot; much like in films such as FUNNY PEOPLE, SPRING BREAKERS is less typically structured under the three-act paradigm and more just split down the middle. In essence, Korine divides his film into two parts: pre-Franco and post-Franco.
In spite of the latter half’s issues (most of which stem from an unfocused thematic through-line and a generally meandering story), it is also home to the highlight of the entire film: James Franco. While all of the women in the film are suitably cast and all do a solid job, Franco steals the show out from everybody else on the production. Dressed to the nines in Sunshine State-gangster attire (complete with grills on his teeth, corn-rolled hair and tattooed from head to toe), Franco completely loses himself in the role and has more sinister fun than I’ve seen put on-screen in some time. His obviously improvised ramblings are the stuff of legend, and he is simultaneously hilarious, horrifying and pitiable. His power-drunk boasts, demanding that the girls “look at all his shit” (“shit” which includes nunchucks, a few bottles of Calvin Klein and a host of machine guns) are breathlessly entertaining, and the Britney Spears montage might be one of the darkest moments of comedy I’ve seen all year. Richard Kelly would be proud.
SPRING BREAKERS is unique, it’s interesting and it’s absolutely insane – all things that are refreshing to get out of a film that seemed at first like a cheap exploitation film that was taking advantage of the popularity of barely-legal pop-culture icons. Instead, we get a different kind of social commentary: one that says what we all expected it to say, but in a way that was far from expected. A hellish fever dream of surreal, dark comedy.
A nice change of pace, really.