When Harmony Korine was asked if he felt creepy making young actresses do dirty things, the writer-director of Spring Breakers replied, “I feel like the most pure human being that’s ever existed… The most pure human being of all time.” Sorry, Harmony, but there’s more bullshit in that statement than there are areolae in your movie’s first two minutes (i.e., a lot).
Since writing 1995’s Kids, Korine has written and directed five provocations he’s called feature films. His first was Gummo (1997), a movie light on narrative and heavy on garbage. It also contains a sex worker with Down’s syndrome and a bathroom decorated with fried bacon. Next came Julien Donkey-Boy (1999), which showed Werner Herzog abusing his son and playing cards with a handless man. Herzog also starred in Korine’s third feature, Mister Lonely (2007), a story about a Michael Jackson impersonator and an alcoholic priest (Herzog) who tests his nuns’ faith by urging them to skydive without parachutes. Shot entirely on VHS, Trash Humpers was released in 2009. It’s about people who hump trash.
Spring Breakers is his latest, and it’s just as inflammatory as his earlier work. It stars Ashley Benson, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, and Rachel Korine as spring breakers who drink, smoke, and snort their way through St. Petersburg, Florida. Ultimately, the girls end up in the arms of Alien (James Franco), a local rapper and drug dealer in a turf war with his ex-bestie, Archie (Gucci Mane). In about ninety minutes, the movie packs enough booze and “illegitimate” rape to last a whole semester on Frat Row. But forget about all the blow, bongs, and mons pubis, what’s most provocative about Spring Breakers is this: it supersizes pop culture’s easiest targets—blonde bimbos, Evangelicals, Florida, and white appropriation of black masculinity—and then, shockingly and simply, presents them without comment. In terms of social critique, Spring Breakers is as pure and toxic as pre-cut cocaine.
The movie abounds with objectionable images, plotlines, and dialogue. (A toddler stares at a pile of weed twice her size. White characters slaughter black ones. “Bitch” has no synonyms. And so on.) You’d be hard pressed to identify a moment that isn’t offensive, immoral, and/or unethical. In this way, Spring Breakers shares a lot with Todd Phillips’s two—soon to be three—Hangover movies. Both Korine and Phillips traffic in parties, sexism, and racism, and both directors ask their audiences to revel in their naughtiness. But that’s where the similarities end. In service of tidy, white-washed conclusions, the Hangover movies ask us to forgive them their trespasses. And many of us do. After all, we can’t let a little anti-Asian sentiment or misogyny get in the way of Phillips’s paycheck or, more importantly, our enjoyment. Spring Breakers, on the other hand, doesn’t give a fuck about you and your feelings. There’s no winking at the camera. There’s no redemption, and certainly no happy ending. There’s not even a tragic ending. There’s just plot. It’s difficult to think about the film’s morality, not because the characters’ actions are morally fuzzy (they are all, without exception, deplorable), but because the film itself seems entirely disinterested in whether the spring breakers are heroes or villains.
The “achievement” of Spring Breakers is its moral ambivalence. The film refuses to explain, excuse, or comment on its characters’ behavior. Furthermore, when you swing for the fences as forcefully as Korine does, you tend to take the fences down with you and leave the spectator disoriented. In one memorable scene, a character is raped at gunpoint, orally penetrated by the gun itself. It’s an incredibly uncomfortable moment and a powerful piece of filmmaking. Instead of ending in horror, the scene becomes something else entirely as the victim becomes aroused, brings the two rapists to completion, and declares them “my mother fuckin’ soul mates. Swear to god, I just fell in love with y’all.” The acting in this scene is excellent to the extent that the rape and declaration of love feel terrifyingly real. By bleaching his film of morality and replacing it with his characters’ sincerity, Korine creates a nihilistic space that’s alien to American multiplexes. It’s not that drugs are good, rape with a deadly weapon is better, and Florida is best; it’s that drugs, rape, and Florida simply are. If nothing else, this (lack of a) point of view is refreshing.
What’s not refreshing are the film’s racial politics, which are lifted straight from music videos and hip hop. For Korine, criminality—performed in Spring Breakers by white men, black men, and white women—cannot exist without black masculinity. As the film’s chief villain, Gucci Mane’s character exhibits this relationship literally. When three white women rob a restaurant, they swap their white femininity for tropes of black maleness. They don hooded sweatshirts and shout, “GET ON DA FUCKIN’ FLOOR!” as they lay on the swagger nice and thick. Korine’s cavalier appropriation of black masculinity confirms that the subversive politics of N.W.A.—the modern historical root of black masculinity as political statement—have been erased from popular consciousness. Equally disheartening, the film’s black women, save for one briefly glimpsed police officer, are relegated to the role of video ho. Yes, they twerk hard for the money, but the one-dimensionality of their representation is disappointingly familiar, especially given the film’s reluctance to critique such tropes.
The movie’s portrayal of black female bodies is all the more troublesome because Spring Breakers has a rather progressive view about white female sexuality. When they aren’t being doused with alcohol (at one point, a male character pours beer on a woman and says, “Take it like a stripper”), the white female characters actually have agency and (gasp!) take pleasure in their sexual encounters. In one of the film’s more tender moments, two actresses jump into a pool and ride James Franco like he’s Shamu. In this one scene, the women aren’t mere objects to be desired/pleasured/used by men, but rather bodies responsible for their own sexual destinies. That they take this responsibility seriously without being slut-shamed by their director is something sorely missing from popular American films. Once again, the audience is put in a strangely judgment-free zone where it’s hard to tell who’s a victim and who’s a criminal, who’s a slut and who’s a saint. In this context of sexual behavior, it works. Why should we care what women do with their bodies?
Sure, there’s a lot of good stuff here. The camera work is beautiful, complemented by Florida sunsets and DayGlo bikinis. Some of the sight gags and one-liners are stunners (“This money makes my tits look bigger!”), and its politics of sexuality are not entirely without merit. Spring Breakers also has a crime spree montage to end all montages. But for all its shocks and provocations, the most arresting thing about the film is its unconditional acceptance of the characters’ actions and motivations. Korine’s attitude certainly is pure in that he doesn’t taint his story with judgment. While this is noteworthy, don’t get it twisted: Spring Breakers is irresponsible filmmaking, the product of a man who is as wild and consequence-free as spring break itself. At the very least, and perhaps at the very most, the movie is both a post-feminist’s nightmare and racist’s wet dream. In other words, see it immediately. It could be the time of your life.
Derek Loh recently graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law. He has an MA in critical studies in film from The University of Southern California and a bachelors in anthropology from Davidson College. He currently lives in New York in the world's smallest one bedroom apartment.