There aren’t too many more unpleasant film-going experiences than Spring Breakers (2013), but I’m fairly convinced that’s the point. The movie has split its critical consensus nearly down the middle, half praising it for being exceptive of the debauchery it shows, the other half damning it for, by merely showing that debauchery, glorifying it. Truffaut said that he wouldn’t make a war movie because he was a pacifist and, in his opinion, the camera doesn’t have the ability to present war without making it seem heroic or adventurous. Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) notwithstanding, Truffaut is in many ways correct, and the ability to present something both accurately and critically is reserved for only the finest artists. I’m not sure that Harmony Korine, who directs Spring Breakers is such an artist, but I do know that no thoughtful viewer can watch his movie and see an endorsement for the type of free-wheeling partying he presents.
The movie chronicles the nightmare journey of four coeds who want to slip the drab sameness of their college setting for the neon brightness of Florida during spring break. Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Venessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine) don’t have the cash to make the trip until they decide to knock over a restaurant to finance their spree. After a few drug- and booze-filled days on the beach, the girls land in jail (for narcotics possession—they remain unpunished for the stickup) where they are bailed out for ambiguous reasons by Alien (James Franco), a small-time local gangster who thinks he’s a bigger fish than he is. Soon, the proceedings, which began from a fairly senseless place, devolve into unthinking and pointless violence. If that synopsis makes the plot sounds thin, know that the movie isn’t concerned with plot as much as it is with style. When it’s working, it is a damning and chilling indictment of apathetic nihilism represented by orgiastic partying the movie shows, and it draws a line between that nihilism and a general devaluing of human life that Alien and the girls eventually trade in. When it isn’t working, which is frequently enough, it’s as indulgent as the appetites of those it’s condemning, either making too broad a damnation (in its most overreaching moments, it puts forth that human society, due to education, parenting and religion, is a failure) or getting bogged down in the hazy pointlessness of its subject.
The problem is, the party ends before the movie’s running time is over. What Korine does well, very well, is show exploitative and racy images, which, because of the editing, soundtrack and certain voiceovers, are anything but titillating, erotic or fun. Korine, who also wrote the screenplay, has been criticized for failing to make real people out of any of the girls and simply photographing their, and others’, fit bodies, but I think that’s part of the point. There’s a lot of skin in this picture, with women doing things to themselves and each other. However, the way it’s presented is not exciting; it’s sad, pathetic really, first that the men value these women for these purposes only and second, that these women are more than happy to accept those terms. As for character, the quartet aren’t meant to be individuals; they are members of a hive mind that is whipped into a frenzy by the idea of cheap and temporary exploitation. Much of the movie feels like a haze, a dizzying, repetitive mess with a distant but constant bass underneath it all. A little of this is exceptionally effective; a lot of it is desensitizing. Because the girls, who are our heroes (or anti-heroes), are effectively non-people (and to be fair, Franco’s Alien, though more flamboyant, isn’t much more of a fleshed-out person), we feel little sympathy for the terrible choices they are making. We are bringing thought to people who reject that kind of thing, and so our impulse to be compassionate is denied. Because of that, any story involving them has little emotional connection, and by the time of the tasteless finale, the common humanity between us and the characters is truly severed.
This is obviously a narrative problem, but it doesn’t sink the entire effect, if the viewer is willing to look inward a little bit. Admittedly, when the movie was over, I was mostly bored. The repetition of images of writhing bodies being filled with illegal substances coupled with voiceovers repeating themselves, sometimes literally, which was compelling for the movie’s first, atmospheric third, had lulled me into detachment when used as a story device in the last two acts. Many of these images of hard, sexually charged partying and casual violence are staples of music videos, advertising, party movies and the like. We absorb them without thought. In fact, much of the footage could have easily been used in 21 & Over (2013) or Project X (2012) for the purpose of showing what a crazy good time everyone was having. The final sequence of Spring Breakers shows an ugly, violent barrage and I sat there feeling nothing. In watching these young people have their sense of value for their fellow person bludgeoned out of them by equating their worth with their bodies or with brute force, wasn’t I guilty of falling into the same ennui? We see summer action movie after summer action movie end with a climactic battle in a city in which untold anonymous thousands die; can I be bothered to quit texting long enough to take notice of a half-dozen here in Spring Breakers?
Roger Ebert wrote that he liked to watch La Dolce Vita (1960) every decade or so, not only because it is a great movie but because he would use its story of a cynical, emotionally empty journalist as a yardstick for his life. When he was young, he envied the cool laissez-faire of the movie’s main character; as Ebert got older he came to condemn and finally pity him. I thought about this during Spring Breakers, which shared the feeling of La Dolce Vita’s empty dawns and the shame of a life wasted pursuing vacuous pleasures. What the movie doesn’t have is La Dolce Vita‘s narrative command to make its hazy party scenes even more poignant by contrasting them against a person who is fully developed by the script. Spring Breakers is all haze, which might make its message even clearer; when you devalue others to the point that life is a hedonistic blur, what does it matter if the people around you are characters or not?