Every year when the flowers bloom and the birds start to sing, the Florida coast accommodates a free-for-all of bacchanalian excess in worship of beer-soaked dollahs and sun-kissed booties. Jaded students flock to this mythical Eden, coming into blossom themselves as the American Dream sparkles golden across the sands. In the background, self-made gangsters hustle and splash cash on glittering junk; skimpily clad babes perform fellatio in the foreground, their red, white and blue popsicles shaped like rockets.
Spring Breakers is the latest art-trash hallucination from Harmony Korine, infamous provocateur and muck wallower. It’s a debaucherous dreamscape of neon and candy, shot through with melancholy and disquiet. The bikini-slut archetypes at its centre will stop at nothing in their quest for “spring break, y’all!”; the only things that get them wetter than sex are guns and cash, especially stolen cash. Three of the four are played by Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez — each a Disney darling or close enough — not so much re-evaluating their angelic image as violating the halo. The other is Korine’s wife Rachel; nobody’s more bewitched by this lifestyle than the director himself.
Gomez plays a comparatively pleasant Christian gal — named Faith, no less — introduced listening to a white minister’s sweaty sermon on the “swagger of God” and getting “jacked up on Jesus”. His hotchpotch of white and black culture foreshadows the gangsters to come, and typifies the film’s many ironic parallels between race, sexuality and spirituality. We meet two of the others during a lecture on radicalisation post-WW2. Emmett Till’s face is on the projector, and the oppression of his sexual impulses towards a white woman is more than tangentially related to the girls’ notes on the allure of male genitalia. They’re obsessed with escaping this campus of zombified academics, immersing themselves in an idealised notion of black America derived from the sex and violence saturated entertainment industry. Lacking funds, they radicalise themselves via a jawdropping single-take armed robbery (think Gun Crazy meets Girls Gone Wild), ripping their dream from the hands of the system. Their guns only spray liquid, and Benson enjoys wrapping her lips around the barrel. Spring break awaits.
Faith sometimes phones her grandmother in voiceover, waxing rhapsodic about her newfound spiritual awakening. The old dear probably had something more Christian in mind than the grinding, gyrating, glugging and snorting on show, but Korine finds religion in this consummation of animal cravings, another pursuit of immortality in a church of sand and ocean blue. Sin and salvation are two sides of the same stained banknote; hedonism, consumer culture and religious fervour are interchangeable manifestations of our voracious greed for eternal youth.
After indulging a while, the girls get in some trouble, and a smirking stranger named Alien saves the day – all bling and flash and rapper braggadocio, a self-described “guardian angel”. James Franco’s career-best performance is a tour-de-force in vulnerable faux-black posturing; he’s the “American Dream” incarnate, he grins, living exactly how he wants. Faith sees nothing but a serpent and jumps on the next bus out of the film, but the others recognise his identity crisis, his materialistic lifestyle as their own. Gleefully disappearing into his fantasy world, they quickly subvert the traditional pimp ‘n bitches dynamic, notably enticing Alien into fellating his own guns. Their bond remains mutual and sincere, encapsulated by an amazing, heart-gulping montage of their criminal undertakings set to Britney’s “Everytime”.
Alien is locked in a feud with Gucci Mane’s Archie —the blacker, richer, deadlier gangster across town. One girl is shot; the others don pink balaclavas straight out of a Pussy Riot promo, lusting for revenge. Guns are cocked and cocked again, while the narrative collapses further into a psychedelic collage of overlapping timeframes, the haunting mantra of “spring break forever” whispered into the neon night like gunpowder smoke. Alien’s anxious, gold-toothed grin catches the light; soon he and his rival are dead, and the girls’ orgiastic apotheosis of self-gratification is attained.
Korine splatters his wish fulfilment fantasy across the screen, and with it the MTV generation’s collective psyche. He refuses to intellectualise the material, approaching the spring breaker demographic as one of their own. The camera licks sensually along thighs, rolls drunkenly amidst convulsing curves, pushes the dirtiest buttons as hard as it can — yet it wounds and beguiles as often as it titillates. Credit in part goes to Benoît Debie, long-time cinematographer of Gaspar Noé, for infusing these erotic compositions with menace and mystery — often oversaturated, colour-coded and at the mercy of queasy slow-mo. The score of Cliff Martinez and Skrillex oscillates between charged, throbbing beats, adolescent naiveté and sickly ambience.
Spring Breakers forces us to betray our own values, question our instincts. It mirrors the many facets of a generation and a nation, multiple personas all crumbling together. It joins a long line of movies in search of a concrete American identity, magnifying the country’s hypocrisies; the American Dream is a mirror’s thickness from a nightmare, objects of fear and desire are inseparably entwined, values are built on denial. Korine’s USA is a snake devouring its own tail; the realisation of its ideals depends on the dissolution of its own structures. Ethics and economics, gender and race, these girls corrupt such frameworks to grasp at freedom and identity. This elicits a peculiar admiration from jaded cinephiles who dare only radicalise vicariously through the movies, because —like Faith — they’re afraid of leaving their humanity behind.
Film Critic Tom Nixon is a member of the Missing Slate’s Film Team.