LAST NIGHT I saw Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers for the third time. Not because I had to—I’d already taken enough notes to write five pieces—but because I wanted to, the way I want to hear certain albums a hundred times over. The way Alien (James Franco), the misfit drug dealer who nearly steals the movie from its quadruple-heroine collective (Selena Gomez, Rachel Korine, Vanessa Hudgens, and Ashley Benson), keeps Scarface on repeat, “for-ev-ah.”
Loops and repetitions are what Spring Breakers is made of—beginning with the delirious slo-mo bacchanal that puts you inches from the totally bare or fluorescent-bikini-covered breasts of a sea of girls, er, coeds, er, young women going wild on a sun-drenched Florida beach. When the camera has its fill of gravity-defying boobs, it switches to buttocks, and then to hot-pink-tinted lips fellating red, white, ’n’ blue popsicles, then back again, over and over until you might wonder when the story is going to begin or if this giddy, tawdry, MTV-on-ecstasy spectacle is all there is—a visual ground for the movie’s genius ambient sound track that punctuates Cliff Martinez’s anxiety-driven electronica with Skrillex’s dub-step riffs and intermittent backbeats of assault rifles cocked or fired. Close your eyes and make up your own pictures. Because some of those on the screen, their dazzling mix of pop excess and stringent form notwithstanding (even Warhol stuck to halftones for the “Death and Disaster” paintings), are just too ugly. And I’m not referring only to the glimpse of the kid passed out or maybe dead on the floor beside a stopped-up toilet. Did she OD on Skittles? Can a movie be too colorful to swallow?
But eventually a story emerges, a simple fairy-tale-turned-upside-down as by Angela Carter, except Carter never claimed that survival is what matters above all else. Four bored college students—Faith (Gomez), Cotty (Korine), Candy (Hudgens), and Brit (Benson)—are crazy to escape to Florida for spring break. The opening sequence, in retrospect, could be what they imagine their liberation will be. Having insufficient funds, they rob a Chicken Shack with squirt guns and a sledge hammer. “Pretend like it’s a video game. Act like you’re in a movie,” counsels one of the interchangeable blondes. Mission accomplished, they board a bus and head for “St. Pete” where they join the party-in-progress. It’s a beer-drenched, bong-inspired paradise until the police descend and the quartet are cuffed and get to spend a night in jail in their bikinis, only to be bailed out by Alien (Franco), a cornrowed, grillz-sporting drug dealer and rapper wannabe.
Faith is reluctant to get into Alien’s ride (a white Camaro with BALL’R plates), and she grows warier when he gives them a tour of the ’hood where he grew up, the only white kid on the block. His childhood best friend, Archie (Gucci Mane), is now the drug lord whose sovereignty he wants to overthrow. “This isn’t the way it was supposed to be . . . I feel uncomfortable. I want to go home,” Faith repeats again and again, as Alien whispers in her ear and caresses her cheek, like De Niro seducing Juliette Lewis in Cape Fear. But Faith is stubborn and she boards the bus that will carry her back, hopefully not only to her Students for Christ worship sessions, but to the history class where the others should have listened harder when the teacher droned on about slavery, Reconstruction, and the legacy of racism in America. Anyone who thinks that Spring Breakers is apolitical hasn’t noticed the signposts along the way. Faith may have split (and Disney may close its doors to Gomez, its daughter so outrageously come of age), but her voice literally lingers on, her hallucinatory phone call to her grandma—“I’m starting to think this is the most spiritual place in the world. It’s way more than having a good time . . . ”—floating above images that grow increasingly violent and nihilistic as the movie hurtles toward its Day-Glo apocalypse.
Korine’s filmmaking chops reveal themselves not only in memorable individual scenes: The three variations of the Chicken Shack holdup and Alien’s gonzo “Look at my shit” monologue—“I got guns . . . I got my blue Kool-Aid . . . I got shorts . . . I got Calvin Klein’s Escape . . . ”—the most delirious product placement ever. Or Alien and his three blonde “soul mates” (the girls in pink ski masks, toting assault rifles) robbing spring breakers in their bedrooms to the sound of Britney Spears’s “Everytime,” the sequence edited like a music video that begins like a cover—Alien, seated at a white baby grand on a patio overlooking the Gulf of Mexico at sunset, croons the opening bars as the girls, their lips poking obscenely through their masks, cavort around him—and segues into the real thing, in every way. But also in Korine’s direction of Franco, his way of giving the actor the time and space he needs to reveal the terror and confusion beneath Alien’s borrowed black-gangster signifiers. And in his collaboration with the aforementioned composers (Martinez and Skrillex), a superb editor (Douglas Crise), and an ingenious cinematographer (Benoît Debie) shooting in 35 mm embellished with squiggles of low-res video, like acid flashbacks inside your head.
And yet the most extraordinary thing about Korine’s direction is how he gradually shifts the position of the viewer from self-possessed outsider looking in to complete immersion during a denouement where there is no one worth rooting for. But as the speedboat carrying Alien, Candy, and Brit toward the inevitable shootout with Archie and his gang skims the Gulf, we find ourselves holding our breath, as if we had been sucked into an all-nighter of “Grand Theft Auto” where nothing mattered except picking the avatar that gets to play another day.
“Spring break, bitches. Spring break, for-ev-ah . . . ”