This is designed to be read after having seen the film, as the entire plot is discussed.
I can understand why many have difficulty looking past the surface of Spring Breakers, Harmony Korine's epic ode to excess and college girls behaving badly. Korine is, in essence, trying to scare off unbelievers with the opening of the film, a slow motion track through a stereotypical spring break party. Set to Skrillex's “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites,” Korine moves his camera through a horde of nubile young bodies, zooming in on beer poured over bare female breasts as dubstep assaults you through the speakers. It's an art house Girls Gone Wild, and it actively plays into all of the expectations for the film based on its marketing campaign and Korine's reputation as the writer of Kids and director of Gummo and Trash Humpers. Thus it is dismissed as trashy exploitation, an excuse for teen idols Selina Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson to dirty themselves up a bit in a Miley Cyrus-esque act of off-type defiance. There are certainly aspects of all of these ideals within the movie, but they are tools for Korine to use in his quest for something on a different scale behind the madness.
On a slightly deeper surface level, Spring Breakers works quite well as a commentary, critique and satire of our modern culture of materialism as excess. In so doing, the film keeps pace with the litany of corrupted American Dream films we've seen in 2013 (including, but not limited to, The Bling Ring, Pain and Gain, American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street). And much of the extended first act is limited to this outlook, as our cadre of young starlets (Gomez, Hudgins, Benson and Rachel Korine, Harmony's wife) from a nondescript college make their way down to St. Petersburg, Florida for the sort of spring break bacchanal society has prepared us to expect. Only one of them is given any sort of back story, and from its quality it's clear such things are not a priority for Korine. What we get is that Gomez's character is a devout Christian (and member of a youth group led by professional wrestler Jeff Jarrett, which is a little weird if you know who Jeff Jarrett is and didn't expect him to show up in this movie) whose name is Faith. Not big on the subtext.
Before their sojourn, the ladies need some spending cash and decide to rob a restaurant with squirt guns and hammers. Korine puts us in the getaway car for the scene, following the strike from outside and making it seem distanced and almost quaint, as if you're watching a silent film for a scene. The danger is there, but it's a different kind of danger. And when they get down to Florida, things play out the way you would expect. Forever clad in skimpy Day Glo bikinis, the girls flit from party to party, indulging in sex and drugs, only breaking from the debauchery for a parking lot sing-along to Britney Spears' “Baby One More Time.” For that 35 or so minutes, it all plays out in a straightforward, if a little heightened and stylized, manner. That is until Korine revisits the attack on the chicken shack, this time following Brit and Candy on the inside. The scene is horrifying and violent, shockingly aggressive, and shows the true degradation of Brit and Candy as characters. They're of a different breed than the rest of the group. They're legitimately dangerous.
Then a party gets a little too crazy, and the girls find themselves scared, broke, alone and imprisoned. Enter Alien (real name Al), a tattooed rapper/drug dealer/hustler played by James Franco, all dreadlocks and platinum grills. Alien fancies himself as a guardian angel, here to whisk the girls right back to the hedonistic life that was taken from them. But this time around it's different. Alien takes them to a party, but the young coeds have been replaced by gangstas and thugs, and Korine paints the scene with a decidedly more sinister edge. So sinister, in fact, that it's too much for Faith to handle, as she is convinced nothing good will come of their new situation and catches a bus back to school. In the realm of Spring Breakers, nothing matters outside of this strange little world in St. Pete. You can't with a straight face put it on the same level as the fate of Marion Crane in Psycho, but there is something deliriously audacious about taking the only character with even an ounce of development and shunting her out of the movie halfway through the second act, never to be seen again.
This is still a movie, though, and it has somewhat of a plot to follow, so we need a dominant protagonist to take us through the second half of the film. One would assume, nay expect, the remaining trio of Cotty, Brit and Candy to come to the fore, but Korine rebels against that instinct and instead throws the rest of the narrative behind Alien, and the runaway freight train that is James Franco. Pretty much right until Faith leaves the group, Alien seems to be a pretty stereotypical gang banger looking to take advantage of some vulnerable coeds. But once she's out of the picture and we get back to Alien's abode, Korine opens him up. The now infamous “Look at my shit!” monologue, where Franco gives us a tour of his life of excess and unbridled materialism (and is the impetus for his Oscar campaign's change from “For Your Consideration” to “Consider This Shit”) is more than just a well-performed clever rant. It shows us that Alien is, at his core, basically just a nerd who managed to stake out a life for himself as a low level thug thanks to connections with a childhood friend, but is the most concerned with collecting stuff and surface pleasures. He represents the culture that has cluelessly and dangerously embraced Tony Montana's cautionary tale in De Palma's Scarface as some sort of blueprint for success. He loves his clothes and his cologne and his dark tanning oil. He makes references to Star Trek and Star Wars, all with a giant goofy grin on his face.
Korine spends the rest of the film establishing Alien as a tragic figure. The expectation of the story is that Alien is a corrupting influence on these naïve little girls who just wanted to have fun, but that would be too easy for Korine. Indeed, the opposite is true, as is evidenced by Brit and Candy shoving loaded guns in Alien's mouth as they party on his cash-covered bed. Alien's tone shifts from jocular to serious to fearful, and his eyes show the true terror of someone in over his head for a few seconds before he ingratiates himself to them by prostrating himself through fellating the barrel. He's no longer in control. For a while, the ride remains pretty fun; he gets to do what he's done before but with three hot girls on his arms. The problem, though, is these three girls are just as addicted to material excess as he is, and their combined hubris puts them too much on the radar of Alien's childhood best friend Big Arch, a local drug kingpin who decides it's time to shake them down.
This also marks the end of Cotty, who takes a bullet in the arm during a warning drive-by from Big Arch. And it also marks the fundamental change in Alien's character. He sits at his virginal white piano, stroking that one key with a bloodied finger, polluting the ivory keys with crimson, singing that undeniably creepy Four Little Chickies song. He points his gun into the black of the night and drawls about how he has to kill his best friend in an act of revenge; he doesn't have a choice here, as Brit and Candy wouldn't tolerate any other action. This isn't a simple situation, though, because he knows he's outmanned and outgunned and very likely to not survive the experience. So you watch him try to convince Brit and Candy not to go through with it by pointedly asking them if they want to do it over and over again. But it's clear at that point that there's no turning back, because Brit and Candy are, to put it simply, monsters. They told themselves to act like they're in a video game or a movie before knocking over that chicken shack, but they didn't need that motivation. They're stone cold killers with a true affinity for chaos, and they've always been that way. They're more dangerous than everyone else in the film, even Big Arch. These are the people with which Alien finds himself stuck.
After Cotty leaves St. Pete, the film takes on an almost sepulchral tone. She was the last bastion of sanity holding the raging ids of Brit and Candy in check. Without Cotty or Faith there, Brit and Candy can fully give in to their dark sides, catching up Alien into their wake. You see it in his eyes (truly wonderful eye-acting performance from Franco) as they prepare for the attack on Big Arch's compound. He is 100 percent positive that he's going to die while Brit and Candy dance around the house with sub machine guns and shotguns, putting on their bright pink ski masks and preparing for war with glee. Korine, to his credit, doesn't even mess around, taking out Alien on the docks in the most perfunctory way before anything else actually happens. Thus the actual assault takes on a bit of an elegiac tone, in part due to Alien's death and in part due to the juxtaposition of putting the audio of the girls leaving messages to their parents about how fun their trip was and how they can't wait to do it again next year while they murder about a dozen people. And these two rage-monsters win in the end, driving off into the sunset in their stolen Lamborghini with (we would assume) riches beyond imagining.
The tragic story of Alien, a wannabe poser gangsta thug who got caught up with the wrong people and ended up dead, does not appear to be the focus of Spring Breakers going into it. It's obfuscated by Korine and Douglas Crise's anti-chronological editing (a case in point; when Faith is trying to explain to the girls that she feels a sense of foreboding, we flash forward to a few seconds of Alien at his piano shortly after Cotty gets shot), creating that dreamlike state that dominates the tone of the film. It's obfuscated by those insane slow motion montages set to Franco's repeated “Spring Break forever” mantra that come off like Malick from hell. It's obfuscated by the consistent and repeated use of guns cocking on the soundtrack, a base, ugly, violent and foreboding sound that serves as Chekhov's Sound Design. It's obfuscated by the social commentary, the take on the male gaze leering on female body parts and the shallowness of material excess. These choices, to me, are all pure surface. They are often interesting and sometimes profound academically engaging bit of surface, but surface nonetheless. The core of Spring Breakers, the aspect that keeps me coming back for more, is Alien. It's Franco's eyes and the jovial way he asks why they actin' spicious. It's a grand Shakespearean tragedy wrapped up in a commentary about trashy schlock. And it's glorious.