Harmony Korine has represented the boundary-pushing spirit of American independent cinema since the 90s, famous for his distinctive, trailblazing depiction of the lost voices of the United States. His latest work, The Beach Bum, provides a sharp critique of American culture’s obsession with searching for meaning in an arbitrary world while providing a lifeline to creativity within American cinema.
The Beach Bum follows the aimless misadventures of Moondog, who could be played by none other than Matthew McConaughey, as he indiscriminately lives his flamboyant, independent lifestyle. Thematically, the film contrasts well with the depiction of self-indulgence in pursuit of rebellion seen in “Spring Breakers,” but Korine purposely strips his narrative of even the slightest aspect of structure so audiences reflect the disaffected relationship of Moondog and his environment.
Korine’s undercurrent of anarchy in the face cinematic standards has always influenced his work, yet The Beach Bum provides a new layer of creativity to his filmography. In the 90s, Korine was the only American director to follow the Danish film movement, Dogme 95, founded by Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. Von Trier and Vinterberg’s movement provided guidelines for art films with the intent to take creative power from film studios and give creative freedom back to the director. Korine embraced this doctrine, and The Beach Bum is a modern interpretation of the Dogme 95 movement.
The Beach Bum’s lack of narrative structure or character arch serves as more than a simple deviation from usual American cinema. It allows Korine’s cultural dissection to be on full display, and his constant cinematic subversions continue to keep the audience engaged throughout the run-time. Without Korine’s decision to eschew structure, his themes, and McConaughey’s performance, would not have the desired impact.
The directorial influence is overtly obvious throughout the film but Korine rests the success of the narrative on the immense acting talent of McConaughey. Between crushed tallboy cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and burrito-sized joints, McConaughey’s immense screen presence allows Moondog to embody the American spirit of reckless abandon. Korine populates Moondog’s life with a stellar supporting cast, which seemingly enters and exits the narrative just like the tide on the shore of the Florida keys. McConaughey embodies Moondog, and the line between actor and role is more than just blurred, it’s destroyed.
Korine’s screenplay displays his sharp, fundamental understanding of classic American storytelling, yet this knowledge is used to undermine each aspect of Hollywood style. However, while the characters in his films seem to spit in the face of their environment simply for the enjoyment of rebellion, Korine’s punk approach to cinema is anything but solely self-indulgent.
Moondog’s recklessness directly reflects Korine’s recklessness, which reflects that of the American audience. Much like McConaughey’s embodiment of Moondog, Korine’s art exists on the murky border of cultural depiction or criticism and his own version of American neorealism.
The Beach Bum is now available on Blu-ray and VOD.