When I watched Spring Breakers (2012) it was almost like watching a reverse Rebecca Black “Friday”: it’s a pure form of what not to do for an indie film. While it’s been polarizing and recently better received by the indie film community, all the hype for how it’s Harmony Korine’s subversive satire of American culture falls flat on its face.
The biggest problem with the film is its mismatch between tone and character. On a tonal level, there is no comedy, dark or otherwise. It is, to quote some reviews, “deadly serious” and “take[s] itself seriously.” indeed, in many ways the film has the sincerity of a made-for-TV Hallmark drama.
But then come the characters.
In what seems like it was out of a play from Bertold Brecht, all the characters are pathologically flat. Indeed throughout the film they engage in the excess and debauchery of spring break like mindless machines without any kind of deepness or insight whatsoever. The immediate response then is “of course, that’s the point!” Well here lies the problem of Spring Breakers, it tries to be both completely serious while examining the internal world of characters who are empty. You can’t have it both ways.
The whole point of having unrealistic characters is to put a distance between the audience, so that they can critically analyze what their watching. As the Swedish novelist Elfriede Jelinek put it:
Psychological realism is repulsive, because it allows us to escape unpalatable reality by taking shelter in the “luxuriousness” of personality…The writer’s task is to block this maneuver, to chase us off to a point from which we can view horror with a dispassionate eye.
However, the seriousness of the film tries to remove this distance, making it contradictory. Thus it does not work, you can either have passionate realism or a satirical distanced critique, not both.
Spring Breakers tries to do both and fails spectacularly.