For the past week, Grierson has been at the Toronto Film Festival seeing the movies we're all going to be talking about for the next few months. Today is his second of two dispatches.
Harmony Korine doesn't make films so much as he makes provocations. In a career that started as the screenwriter of Kids, which depicted a group of amoral New York teens seemingly running wild, the fringe writer-director has continued exploring strange little pockets of humanity that we'd probably be happier not knowing existed. When Kids came out, audiences debated (or maybe feared) if what was depicted was realistic, but since then—whether it's the small-town weirdness of Gummo or the white-trash horror show in Trash Humpers—it's become clearer and clearer that Korine isn't interested in presenting accurate portraits of real life. Instead, his movies are intentionally button-pushing attempts to get at something darker about American culture, exposing the ugliness lurking under polite society. Even when his films fail, they're unnerving because they hit at some disturbing truths, telling us things about ourselves we don't want to admit.
Korine's willful provocation can make him seem like the most pretentious twit in the world. His 1999 film Julien Donkey-Boy was done Dogme-style, and Trash Humpers was constructed to look like a found-footage film shot by the titular characters on crappy VHS. It's not just that Korine is fascinated by outsiders—he wants his film themselves to be abrasive, even off-putting. Such an approach will make the less charitable wish he'd just grow up already. That's why it's so funny that his latest, Spring Breakers, is probably his most mature, successful work—while at the same time being his most baldly confrontational and, quite often, ridiculous.
Spring Breakers pairs Korine with pop culture's current anointed king of self-indulgence: James Franco. The movie is an amped-up exaggeration of Girls Gone Wild hedonism, as a group of anonymous college hotties (including Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson) venture to Florida for spring break. Amidst the drinking and nudity, they meet up with a drug-dealing, machine gun-toting, grill-wearing weirdo who calls himself Alien, and he's played by Franco right on the line between creepy and ludicrous. It's easy to laugh at this white boy's slang-spewing nonsense and Scarface aspirations, but Alien's seriousness about his own bad-boy shtick is scarier because of how goofy he seems—he's dumb enough to do real harm to those around him.
Korine's movies have never been about plot—usually, some stuff happens, and then some other stuff happens—but Spring Breakers is the closest to having a traditional storyline, and it helps the movie build dramatically in ways that his others couldn't. About halfway through the film—after the gals have gone through the typical spring break debauchery—they get arrested and Alien bails them out, setting the stage for a second half where he takes them under his wing, sort of like evil Honest John guiding innocent Pinocchio toward temptation. (Although they're not entirely innocent: They pay for their spring break adventure by first sticking up a restaurant.) Alien, meanwhile, has run afoul of an old friend (rapper Gucci Mane) who doesn't want him on his turf, and their feud may turn violent at any second, with the girls in the center of it.
For those terrified that Kids was a factual documenting of the lives of modern-day urban teens, Spring Breakers will probably be just as horrifying: The youth are drinking and having threesomes and shooting guns! What's great about Korine's film is that it starts in a place of relative plausibility and just keeps pushing further and further into a fever dream that's a titillating parody of a concerned parent's worst fears. (The movie is essentially Project X, even more debased.) But Spring Breakers' parody isn't simply funny: As staged by Korine, the film is legitimately frightening and enticing, its excesses hypnotic and quite often brilliantly filmed. The movie was shot by cinematographer Benoît Debie (Enter the Void) and co-scored by Cliff Martinez (Drive), and like their previous films Spring Breakers seems to operate in a hyper-reality that's just close enough to the real thing that you can't dismiss it as pure fantasy.
At my screening in Toronto, the packed house seemed evenly divided between those who wanted to laugh at the movie's knowing exaggeration and those who consider Korine's films to be serious art. I came in somewhere in the middle, and I think Spring Breakers succeeds precisely because it satisfies both camps. The film's lawless irresponsibility is pushed to its furthest extreme, and Korine doesn't telegraph how you should respond. Is he condemning this world of random, stupid debauchery? Is he getting off on it? Is he trying to scare us? Depending on the particular scene, it could be any of the above, but there's no question that beneath all the gloriously trashy glitz, Korine has something meaningful to say.
As with his other films, Spring Breakers (which is scheduled to be released in March) seems like an indictment of American society—in this case, of the mindless glorification of youth culture and the pseudo-gangster lifestyle. And yet, at the same time, this may also be his most sympathetic film. Our college-age heroes' descent into darkness can be seen as their last hurrah before entering a workforce that doesn't have room for them and makes no guarantees that their lives won't be poorer than their parents'. That what makes Spring Breakers' bizarro world so gripping—as scary and horrible as it is, at least there's freedom and possibility. For these gals, adulthood is where the real nightmare will start. It's the first time in Korine's career where the world he depicts actually seems less horrifying than the one we're in.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.