Remember when P.T. Anderson wanted to make an Adam Sandler movie into an art film? Harmony Korine seems to have similar ambitions for the teen road trip movie. Spring Breakers was marketed as exploitation, but Korine is going for "impressionistic" "hypnotic" "fever dream" (all his words). The controversy comes when you consider whether anything is meant by this at all. In some respects, no. Korine is forthright that this is a film about surfaces – all that candy-coloured neon lighting is supposed to emphasise this. He also admits that the genesis of the movie was in images and footage that inspired paintings and other fine art – 'sculptural' (again, his word) constructions of sexy trashy co-ed porn and Florida party footage. The visuals came first, and it's about the feelings they evoke. Even the voiceover is talked about in the context of the aim to mimic some of the effects of EDM and drugs – loop-based music with repeating vocal samples that generate more significance the more they recur. In these respects, the film is very immediate and unassuming.
But I think there is more going on here. Korine isn't just making this because he is fascinated by these images, sounds and sensations – he is not just a fetishist. He understands the horror at the heart of the fever dreams he is conjuring. The film is a dream, mashing up cartoons, video games, gangster films, EDM, rap, weed, coke and alcohol. The girls are explicitly inspired by these things when they rob a fast food restaurant. At several moments, Korine's characters refer to this mix of bacchanalia and violence as the American Dream – a kind of unlimited individualism, a frontier spirit looking for transcendence. There is something about the iconography of spring break that goes to the heart of the myths America is built on. The evangelical religious foundations of this urge for rapture is explored through Selena Gomez's character, who reaches a point at which she starts getting uncomfortable with the dreams of her friends. Racism is also subtly present – Gomez wants to go home as soon as she finds herself in a black area. Korine has targets here – he is trying to say something. Perhaps the P.T. Anderson quip is a bit wide – more than anything Spring Breakers feels to me like an update of Terrence Malick's Badlands, a complicit look at the way we worship sex, violence, youth and freedom. And Korine has enough distance to understand that the characters, and the audience, eventually have to wake up.