Film review/interview: Harmony Korine’s ‘Spring Breakers’ is a Thrilling Sensory Assault

Spring Breakers 2“I think it’s a uniquely American rite of passage,” Nashville-based filmmaker Harmony Korine tells ArtsNash regarding the annual party pilgrimage to Florida that college students have made for decades. His new film Spring Breakers – easily his most “mainstream” project with an A-lister like James Franco and Disney Channel stars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens in the cast – uses that young-adult landmark as the jumping-off point for a very intense and thrilling ride through what Korine calls “hyper-violent, hyper-sexualized subject matter.”

Is it ever – first, we have Hudgens’ character Candy conspiring with fellow bad girls Brit (Ashley Benson from ABC Family’s “Pretty Little Liars”) and Cotty (Nashville actress Rachel Korine, who is also the director’s wife) to rob a restaurant – a sharp sequence where we get to go around the building with the getaway vehicle – when they’re short of cash for the trip south. When they and their born-again friend Faith (Gomez) reach St. Petersburg the hedonism goes so far they’re arrested; a seemingly good Samaritan in corn-row-wearing, grill-teethed countenance named Alien (Franco) bails them out of jail, but since he’s a drug-dealing, arms-selling guy with some hip-hop musing on the side we know quickly this story won’t end with hearts and flowers.

Spring Breakers 6The initial scenes in St. Pete contain enough flesh to make “Girls Gone Wild” look like a Natural Geographic series; what comes after is Where the Boys Are on a bad acid trip. But that overload is what ultimately makes this film so fascinating. The combination of Korine’s relatively linear (particularly when considering his past work) storyline, strong performances from his entire cast – which also includes rapper Gucci Mane as Alien’s former friend turned enemy – and the terrific contributions of Belgian cinematographer Benoît Debie, electronic music artist Skrillex and composer Cliff Martinez (Drive) ensure that this strange neon painting of a picture intrigues and involves you from beginning to end.

Franco’s character drives the film, and it’s one of his best performances ever – I think the last time I was this engrossed by a pop-culture-savvy villain was when I first watched Dennis Hopper’s gas-inhaling Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. Korine, who calls Alien “a violent pop poet,” “cosmic gangster” and “mythic violent jester,” says Franco and he worked on developing the role well before cameras rolled: “For a year I sent him clips and images and audio that I thought were related to his character in some kind of a spiritual way, and then he kind of sifted through that, filtered and refiltered it until it became this unreal performance.”

Spring Breakers 8There’s been buzz online and elsewhere about the participation of “family TV” stars like Gomez, Hudgens and Benson in such a violent and sexually-charged movie as it neared today’s nationwide unveiling. But Franco just opened as the Wizard in the child-friendly Oz the Great and Powerful, so why should that matter? They’re actors after all; they’re just playing roles. Why does Korine think his male star gets different treatment than his female leads on that topic? “With Franco he’s kind of enigmatic and people are trying to figure him out,” the director answers. “He’s more abstract, kind of inventing it as he goes and I think that’s where the intrigue comes from. You don’t know where his center is; you’re always guessing.”

Proof of just how right Korine’s casting instincts for Spring Breakers were comes in a powerful scene set in a “hard core pool hall” where Alien tries to charm a greatly troubled Faith into staying in St. Pete. Gomez and Franco provide a study in fear and manipulation that’s really riveting.

Spring Breakers 3“That scene was very real in a lot of ways. It was not scripted – it was something I’d been holding for a long time,” Korine explains. “It was an idea I’d had as I watched how the characters were being played. As the performances shifted more into extremes and became more ‘hyper-violent’…I started to feel the story needed to evolve and go in that direction, so I wanted a scene where Franco messed with Selena’s head.

“I invented that scene a few days before. …I called Franco the night before and said, ‘I want to surprise Selena in the shoot. I want to pull her in and this is what I want to happen.’ On the day of the shoot she thought she was going home. I just took her by the arm and brought her in that room where Franco and everybody were sitting there waiting for her. And she was freaked out, but I said, ‘Look, all I want you to do is react in real time. Just make the moment.’ And I think it turned to be the strongest scene she’s ever done as far as acting is concerned.”

Spring Breakers 11Debie, whose work on Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible and Enter the Void has brought him well-deserved international acclaim, bought in completely to the director/writer’s vision for this pop-culture-façade piece. The very saturated, at times fluorescent look of Spring Breakers is one of its strongest points, and goes a long way to create what Korine rightly asserts goes “beyond the simple viewing experience so that it becomes more experiential, almost a hypnotic, trance-like liquid narrative…a feeling that goes through you and demands something of you.

“We just developed this kind of language and pushed it into something that was hyper-real and impressionistic. (Debie’s) work was super-inventive.”

Spring Breakers 12The score for Spring Breakers provides a rich and appropriately disorienting accompaniment. “The film needed to be physical and bombastic and I wanted a kind of sensory assault so I was keyed into and felt strongly about both Skrillex and Cliff Martinez,” Korine says. “Their music is pretty much pure, raw energy. I thought the combination of the two would be beautiful. The music is like this weird intersection between sound design, noise and beautiful composition.”

If Spring Breakers is the “mainstream” debut for the man that brought us Gummo, Julien Donkey-Boy, Mister Lonely and Trash Humpers, then Korine should be welcomed with open arms. The establishment could use just this kind of shaking up.

Spring Breakers (www.springbreakersmovie.com) opens nationally in wide release today (March 22). In Nashville the film plays at Regal Green Hills Stadium 16, Regal Hollywood Stadium 27 and Regal Opry Mills Stadium 20; check www.regmovies.com for details. Harmony Korine will be introducing the following showings of the film at Regal Green Hills this weekend: Friday, March 22 – 8 p.m. showing; Saturday, March 23 – 4:50 p.m. and 8 p.m. showings. Rated R for strong sexual content, language, nudity, drug use and violence throughout, 94 min. Written and directed by Harmony Korine. Starring James Franco, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine and Gucci Mane.

 

*Photos by Michael Muller, Chris Hanley and Annabel Mehran courtesy A24 Films.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).