“The only American movie that matters right now,” sez The Globe & Mail's Sarah Nicole Prickett, of Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers. I'd followed enough of the pre-release hoo-ha to think this claim might actually have some substance to it. So, without reading beyond the headline,* I bid the ladies of the house farewell, then hopped into the car and took off for the nearest multiplex to check it out for myself.
Not that I admitted to anyone what I was about to see. Caution before disclosure seemed a prudent strategy. And, sure enough, about 15 minutes after the lights went down I was mentally scrolling over the list of movies playing around me, considering plausible alternatives to the flick I was actually watching. The important thing to remember, I thought, is that no-one should ever, ever know I have seen this movie.
At that early point in the movie Korine is splashing every possible “Spring Break” fantasy (or nightmare, depending on your POV) across the big screen in super-bright, super-garish pastels. Boobs, bottoms and bongs. Girls drinking hooch by the bucket, girls fellating popsicles, girls doubling down on the glass pipe. So far, so very grade 9 — minus the violent vomiting fits, of course, and those anxious shuddering crying jags that take over once you've crossed seven or eight borders you didn't know were there.
Korine seemed to be re-fetishizing already over-fetishized objects for the YouTube generation — an aesthetic I found rough, prurient and unpleasant. On the ride down I had silently joked with myself that what this movie probably needed was a middle-aged guy in the audience, to complete the creepy vibe. Now I wondered if I'd get so much as a second glance had I worn a trench coat and left my pants at home.
I stayed put, though, because Korine had dropped — like anvils from a balloon — plenty of signifiers that this film was SERIOUS, man. It starts in a college classroom where the prof speaks earnestly of how the Greatest Generation took on the challenge of the American Civil Rights Movement. Next we witness a youth group of Holy Rollers worshipping Jesus, with one of the girls reluctantly participating. She's also the first to bail when things get a little scary — and her name is Faith! Etc., etc.
What finally mesmerized me beyond the images was the dialogue, which from the git-go seemed a little off-sync with what was happening on-screen. Every utterance is earnest, and skirts (like everything else in the movie) dangerously close to camp. The talk about how beautiful it all is, and “How much I love you Mom/Grandmom” and how there are “good changes taking place inside” all seems like it might fit with the action (if the characters are, in fact, as impermeably deranged as they appear to be), but also seems off-puttingly incongruous to it. It's like riding a bicycle with a chain that can't quite find the gear it's supposed to be on, then realizing that's how this bicycle has been built. It makes for a weird, discombobulating ride, lemme tell you.
When the show was over the four young fellas** down the aisle from me loudly declared this, “The lamest movie ever.” But they liked James Franco's character, Alien, and certainly weren't complaining during the titty-shots. They also clapped and hooted when Alien boasted of having Scarface play on constant repeat, 24/7, so I'm guessing they were hoping for a movie more like DePalma's, only with lots and lots of super-hot babes.
The movie's conclusion, though, is the studied antithesis of Scarface, so here's the obligatory SPOILER ALERT: rather than holing up, getting high and waiting for the inevitable siege, the girls goad Alien into taking the action to the drug-lord he's been inconveniencing. When they show up at the lair, Alien takes a bullet in the face before he can fire a single shot, while the babes in bikinis and balaclavas pad about and dispatch one (very large, very black, very well-armed) enforcer after the next, before locating the gangsta in question and shooting him, too — all with a single clip of bullets in their guns. END SPOILER.
It's all framed in a matter-of-fact style, with all the tension of a video game on cheat code. In other words, if you came to this movie hoping your jones for Redemptive-Cathartic Violence might get stroked and put to bed, well . . . dude — you are being mocked. Lest there be any doubt, the girls phone home and, in dreamy tones, talk about how they're “ready to get serious about their studies, now.”
Such a withering excoriation of that particular trope could not come at a better time. And there are so many others Korine and his girls tuck into — and plenty of interpretations as to what it all means. It's all snotty, brash, bright and loud, making Tarantino's late indulgences look like something from Clint Eastwood's declining years. Some viewers might have fun, some might be perplexed, sooner or later most will feel insulted.
As for me, it's been years since I last left a movie and puzzled this much over “why this and not that?” questions. And darned if I'm not thinking Spring Breakers really might be “the only American movie that matters right now.”
*Prickett's essay is very good. Bonus: if you read it, and skip the movie, you'll feel no shame.
**After the preview for the Jackie Robinson biopic was over, I heard, “Ima see that one, yo.” Sincerely said, so far as I could tell. Need I add that these guys were as white as the driven snow?