May 2013

Arts & Letters

‘The Hunt’ and ‘Spring Breakers’ film review

By Luke Davies

Danish director Thomas Vinterberg made Festen (1998), a family reunion drama so dazzling and disturbing it was hard to look away and yet excruciating to continue looking. In The Hunt (in national release 2 May), Vinterberg continues honing his skills in the cinema of anxiety.

Mads Mikkelsen is Lucas, a recently divorced, affable kindergarten teacher at a small school in a tight-knit Danish town. Forty-something, he’s a little lonely, and things aren’t going at all well with the ex-wife, regarding visitation rights with his teenaged son. But he has a circle of rowdy, boisterous friends who play cards and get drunk with him, and the kids at school clearly adore him. Life could be worse.

Vinterberg’s film, which is narratively modest but entirely gripping, drops a pebble into this calm pond, and watches the ripples spread. It’s not a tsunami that results, but for Lucas it might as well be. Vinterberg poses the question, “What happens when an innocent person is accused of paedophilia?” and proceeds to outline a possible answer.

In the traditional wrongful accusation narrative, a Harrison Ford–like protagonist proves his innocence, exacts revenge and restores justice. The Hunt is crueller and more capricious than that. We like Lucas; the film makes clear his innocence. But being cleared of such grave charges guarantees nothing of how the town will retain its memories and suspicions, or harbour and channel its murderous intent. The film is not a procedural thriller, but rather a study in dismay: we watch Lucas watching life as he knows it being stripped away. The experience is not comfortable.

Vinterberg makes of a five-year-old girl’s careless, vaguely petulant lie about having seen her teacher’s “private parts” an entirely believable scenario, not only of how plausibly the lie might have come about in the first place, but of the cascading fallout. “We will of course follow procedure to the letter,” says the school principal to a colleague. They don’t. The first investigator to arrive is not a child-abuse specialist, but a local townsman. His careful interrogation of Klara, the five-year-old (Annika Wedderkopp), is full of leading questions. The investigation gets ever more contaminated from there.

At first Lucas doesn’t seem to get how serious this all is, or how bad it’s about to turn. He knows he’s innocent, so he thinks all will be quickly sorted. Even little Klara sees, in her childish way, that she’s inadvertently created something bigger than she could have imagined. “I did something foolish,” she says to her mother, trying to backtrack. But there’s no turning back now, for anyone. Other parents have by necessity been informed, and soon in turn their children are “remembering” what Lucas did to them. Witch-hunts have a momentum all their own, and the film attempts to coolly dissect that momentum.

“There is this cliché about kids that they don’t lie,” Vinterberg has said, “and in this film, we claim that they do: they invent stories, they often lie to make the grown-ups happy.” There are no traditional antagonists – no “baddies” – in the film, but the problem for Lucas is not that everyone in his small town is innocent, nor even that everyone thinks they are doing the right thing. Rather, Vinterberg postulates, it’s that we now live in a world where communication has become so rapid that “you can tell stories about another person that very quickly become the identity of that person”. In a world full of reinvention narratives, “paedophile” is a non-refundable identity.

By sticking as closely as possible to Lucas’ story only, Vinterberg avoids bothering us with the broadness of classic witch-hunt movie scenes. The snowballing of events outside of Lucas’ immediate field of vision – the gossip of the townsfolk, the media response – is all implicit rather than explicit. What matters to Vinterberg, as a dramatist, is the spectacle of humans under immense stress, borne down upon by inscrutable, unstoppable forces. “You know that things aren’t normal around here,” Lucas says to his son, who has arrived in solidarity. Josef K couldn’t have put it better.

Harmony Korine burst onto the indie movie scene when at 19 he wrote the Larry Clark film Kids (1995), an audacious, rambling, low-budget depiction of amorality in the age of AIDS. Leo Fitzpatrick played Telly, a feckless, rather two-dimensional, HIV-positive skate punk whose sole intention appeared to be deflowering equally feckless 14-year-old virgins. No one in the film seemed to have anything resembling an inner life, and in a sense that’s what made it so disturbing: we got to ask, “Is this a new generation?” There’s a race-against-time story of sorts, but what lingers from the movie is the sense of aimless despair. Adult “structure” is entirely absent; the narrative’s lack of tightness seems a valid philosophical mirroring of this fact. New York is an island, and the kids in Kids are like the psychotropically altered heirs to the schoolboys of Lord of the Flies.

It’s been downhill since Kids for Clark: in desultory, ill-pitched exploitative movies like Bully (2001) and Ken Park (2002), with their faux “themes” and depictions of teen nihilism, the most concrete qualities he has revealed as a filmmaker are that he is wont to sexualise teenage girls (and boys, for that matter), and that he likes low camera angles looking up girls’ legs, from close range, at their crotches. As a storyteller, Clark seems entirely lost; in that sense Korine may have been, for a brief moment, the best thing that ever happened to him.

Korine went on to make his own problematic films, loved, hated or dismissed in equal measure: the strange Gummo (1997), the even stranger Julian Donkey-Boy (1999), the reviled Trash Humpers (2009). But whether you’re a lover or a hater, they all, in their radical depictions of marginalised youth and disenfranchised adults in a surreal alternative America, contain compelling hallucinatory moments, and it’s never been in doubt that Korine has an artistic vision worth tracking.

In Spring Breakers (in national release 2 May) Korine seems to have shed some of the last vestiges of the pseudo-quirk of his earlier films in favour of a film that looks – on the surface, at least – mainstream, or in any case like it has a budget. To judge by its trailers, you might say it looks titillating and exploitative too. Scratch the surface, and things are a little more complex.

In Australia, the ritualised bacchanalia that our youth, apparently, needs to have is called “Schoolies’ Week”: that release-valve moment in which the previously well behaved say goodbye to childhood and high school in a brief, choreographed excursion from reality, before plunging into the maw of adulthood and the future. In America, whose fetishisation of university entry is so much more intense than Australia’s, this moment of abandon is delayed a year or two, but the mechanics are the same: get yourself, not to the Gold Coast, but to Florida, where a hall-pass from sober behaviour, and a carnival of the flesh, awaits.

MTV began its hypnotically boring Spring Break telecasts – eight or nine hours of crane shots swooping through massed bikini- and boardshort-clad youth holding plastic cups aloft like Holy Grails and dancing by Xanadu-like pools to doof music in the too-bright sunshine – as early as 1986. More recently, the awful Girls Gone Wild franchise has been scarring the zeitgeist. With Spring Breakers Korine, no stranger to trash culture, appears, among other things, to be attempting to aestheticise the awfulness. Whether you read the result as being the latest addition to this canon of beachside exploitation or a brilliant deconstruction of same might depend to some extent on whether you read Korine as carnival huckster or social satirist.

The plot itself is threadbare. Faith, Candy, Brit and Cotty (Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens – now trying to emerge from childhoods as Disney stars – and Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine, the director’s wife) are bored and cashless as term’s end approaches. Seeing Spring Break not just as a civic duty but as a kind of higher calling, three of the four rob a diner. They all go to Florida. They party. They get arrested. A drug dealer named Alien (James Franco) bails them out. Anarchic film tropes ensue.

Dialogue is not Korine’s strong suit. Banal fragments pepper the film in disembodied, floating voice-over loops. On the visual front, he shows a surer hand. Korine is not, at heart, a linear storyteller, but more an observer, via kaleidoscopic montage, of certain insular worlds. As an observation of the poverty of American culture, as a texture-poem of debauchery, Spring Breakers is pretty dazzling. Production- and costume-designed in the old Miami Vice pastel colours, fluidly edited to a terrific soundscape (many of the abrasive, syrupy songs are by Skrillex, and Aaron Glascock’s sound design is extraordinary), shot with an eye to the gauche and sparkly by Benoit Debie, the film can be read as a Boschean fugue on post-empire America. On the other hand, men in trenchcoats might want to go see it when they hear about all those slo-mo crotch and titty shots. It’s hard to know which way to turn. One feels that Korine would be very happy with both responses.

Spring Breakers does fall apart in the third act, when the sheer improbability of the story renders its gossamer thinness overt; it collapses into inconsequentiality then, unable to sustain its own weight. But it contains at times a certain brilliance, and flashy menace. It seems to comment, obliquely but incisively, on the pervasive nature of porn culture in the sexualisation of American youth, and it captures the white noise and vapidity of the Xanadu in freefall that Spring Break culture would seem to be.

At its worst, it’s pastiching Oliver Stone’s wild but wildly inconsistent Natural Born Killers (1994), and at moments, when the girls are alone with their bongs and their off-kilter dreams, it feels very much like a male screenwriter’s fantasy of young girls’ sex-talk. (“Seeing all this money makes my pussy wet.” Really?) But at its best, there are flashes where Spring Breakers approaches the beauty of Gus van Sant’s haunted, elegiac Elephant. That film is sustained in its sadness. Spring Breakers is not, but here and there it reveals tiny windows into the girls’ vulnerabilities and fears, and at such moments the film feels more than just something that will rot your teeth; it feels like a lurid, fractured lament.

Ultimately, the whole endeavour is a kind of stylised, puerile fairytale. But James Franco – I have saved the best for last – is simply astonishing, and makes the entire trip worthwhile. In one frightening, draining scene, Alien leans in close to a trembling Faith, soothingly assuring her that of course she can go home if she’s had enough, but that her friends will stay on and enjoy themselves. When Alien barely brushes Faith’s cheek with the back of his finger, you feel you’ve just witnessed a terrible assault.

Elsewhere, his long, deranged monologues are celebrations of cheap materialism, of the marvels of being a minor kingpin, and of simply being alive and cashed-up. You won’t see a happier loose cannon. I don’t know if Korine wrote the monologues or Franco improvised them, spouting infectious, rapid-fire aphorisms of joyful vacuity, but they are beautiful pieces of writing and performance, and by far the best thing about the film.

Alien is one of the most enjoyable demented lunatics – not so much villain as Fool – of recent cinema. “We’re in a magic place, y’all,” he shouts, hair in tight cornrows, teeth adorned with gangsta silver, MCing at a beach dance, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. Coming from Alien, you can almost believe it.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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