Maybe hell isn't all pitchforks and brimstone and gnashing of teeth; maybe it's more akin to the taffy-colored meltdown that serves as a backdrop for Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers. In the opening frames, it all looks fun and sexy enough—everyone's smiling and having a good time as the sun shines and the booze flows. Look a little closer, though, and that lovely gloss rubs off like cheap suntan oil. Young men pretend to urinate on one another as middle fingers are raised to the camera and smiles turn to smarmy, confrontational smirks. The youth are revolting, Korine seems to be saying.
Yep, they sure are.
Korine hasn't abandoned the themes that have been showing up in his work since he wrote the screenplay for Larry Clark's Kids back in 1995, when he was 19, but he's finally managed to make them palatable. More than palatable, actually—Spring Breakers is an exhilarating, wildly entertaining work. It's still a nihilistic (though frequently hilarious) film about young people who suffer from a dangerous disconnect between their actions and the consequences they might have, but this is an altogether more accomplished and more accessible work than anything Korine has attempted so far.
Anyway, back to that sun-kissed Armageddon. Tampa's infamous Spring Break bacchanalia is the dream destination for a quartet of college girls stuck at school while everyone else has headed home or to the beach. Faith (Selena Gomez) is the only character who's ever really fleshed out, but even she is rendered in broad strokes: a naive churchgoer who may be "crazy for Jesus" but still knows a good party when she sees it. Along with Cotty (Rachel Korine, the director's wife) and interchangeable mean girls Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) and Brit (Ashley Benson), Faith wants nothing more than to find her way to Tampa to make some memories, bare some flesh, and destroy some brain cells. They have no money, but Faith's friends are all about solutions: they rob a restaurant with water pistols and mallets, and soon the girls are off to debauch themselves with thousands of other chemically impaired and mostly naked co-eds.
Things are fine at first, but there's never any doubt that it will all go horribly wrong. Korine's finger is never far from the rewind and fast-forward buttons; we occasionally get random glimpses into the girls' futures—a bloody hand, the unmistakable sound of rounds being chambered—that are ominous even when divorced from any kind of narrative context. When the girls are arrested and subsequently bailed out of jail by a corn-rowed, delusional rapper/drug pusher named Alien (a scene-stealing James Franco), it's no longer a matter of if, but rather when, the consequences of their hedonistic pursuits will catch up to them.
In ways, I suppose, Spring Breakers is kind of a mess. Korine transcends his stunt casting of former teen princesses by eliciting great performances from Gomez, Hudgens, and Benson, but the only character who could be considered a protagonist of any sort hightails it back home before the film careens into its hilariously weird third act, leaving us to navigate the rest of the journey with four characters who are morally and intellectually bankrupt. But this isn't so much a traditional narrative as a crazed fever dream. Brilliantly shot by Enter the Void cinematographer Benoît Debie and scored by dubstep star Skrillex and frequent Soderbergh collaborator Cliff Martinez, Spring Breakers is a visual and aural rush even when there's little else going on. Korine is rarely content to rest on his film's technical laurels, though. He skillfully and artfully manipulates the narrative, looping bits of dialogue and frequently doubling back to show us the same images and sometimes entire scenes from different perspectives. When the girls rob the restaurant early in the film, we see it only from outside, where it looks harmless enough. It takes on disturbing new facets as we learn more about what took place inside the diner, first when the girls reenact it for Faith's benefit and later when a flashback takes us inside for a firsthand look at the damage they caused.
It's never less than entertaining and it rarely takes itself so seriously that it stops being fun, but Spring Breakers is no sun-dappled fantasy; it's a darkly comic, DayGlo freak show that disturbs even as it entices.