I have seen the future of cinema, and it is “Aggro Dr1ft,” a neon-hued outlaw eyegasm from the director of ”Spring Breakers.” There will likely never be another film like it. Even so, it’s clear that Harmony Korine’s immersive iridescent plunge into the world and psyche of a serial killer points the way down fresh avenues for the medium to explore.
This is the first movie I’ve seen that doesn’t feel like it was meant to be watched; instead, it was designed to wash over you — or maybe just to unspool on one of the many screens illuminated in your field of vision, while your focus ricochets between it and whatever else is competing for your attention. As Brian De Palma’s “Scarface” became a touchstone cultural reference for the immigrant and hip-hop communities, so too could “Aggro Dr1ft” connect with audiences who see themselves (or their aspirational selves) in its attitude and imagery.
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Instead of filming with traditional optical cameras, Korine and DP Arnaud Potier used special thermal rigs that register heat. Since those lenses don’t resemble the human eye so much as fluoroscopic X-ray specs, the footage had to be filtered through extensive visual effects (by post houses Cartel and Transformer) to translate it back into something our brains can recognize: a highly artificial, rainbow-bright aesthetic in which figures and their surroundings appear to have been dunked in radioactive Kool-Aid, coming out spectral cyan-magenta-yellow on the other side.
Textures, facial features and traditional lighting have all been obliterated and reinterpreted in a trippy new way, reinforcing one of Korine’s key objectives: to leave audiences feeling as if they’re navigating a virtual new world, not unlike stepping into a video game. Even the way the camera moves reinforces that, floating a little too smoothly as it glides — or drifts — through various locations, or pivots left and right as your field of vision might in a first-person shooter.
Earlier, I referred to the movie’s antihero Bo (embodied by Jordi Mollà) as a “serial killer,” though “Aggro Dr1ft” introduces him as more of an assassin or a hit man … but aren’t they really one and the same? Whether he’s paid for it or not (and he isn’t paid for three of the murders we see him commit here), this is a man with an appetite for annihilation. Bo’s not much of a human being — more of an archetype, really: the lone exterminator, as seen in everything from Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samouraï” to Walter Hill’s “The Driver.”
This is a familiar stock character, which is convenient for Korine, whose screenplay is so insubstantial as to be more of a suggestion: Bo recites a series of anemic mantras (“I was born to kill,” “I am a solitary hero”) while driving his Corvette convertible along the South Florida coast, a low, almost subconscious tension supplied by AraabMuzik’s EDM-adjacent score. Bo’s been commissioned to kill an anonymous rival (too generic to be of much interest) by resident crime lord Pepe (Stet Blancett), who promises his typically obedient hit man a share in his empire.
But something must be short-circuiting inside Bo’s head. Hard to say, as we’re deprived of the usual visual cues to read his facial expressions, though the CG horned demon that looms above him is a clue: a projection of his inner torment. Bo goes home to his wife and children — “little angels” completely unaware of how he earns his living — and shifts his plans, ruthlessly turning against his boss, even as another menacing figure (Joshua Tilley, billed as “Toto” but never so identified) with a voice like Vin Diesel and a swollen-luchador silhouette growls, “I’m coming for you.”
Korine has sowed the seeds for an epic boss battle between Bo and this terrifying creature, which seems more beast than man. Because Korine’s never been one to subscribe to traditional narrative tropes, there’s an insidious sort of suspense running beneath the otherwise-thin plot, like some kind of high-voltage electric current. Few movies manage to worm their way into my subconscious, but I could feel this one’s fingers probing around in there, an unnerving sensation that had less to do with anything the film achieves than Korine’s penchant for unpredictability. His anarchic “Trash Humpers” art stunt achieved a similar effect, but was somehow more threatening in its aggression.
The violence in “Aggro Dr1ft” is more abstract, whereas the more hedonistic gangsta-life interludes — Bo’s wife (Chanya Middleton) twerking for him when he comes home, or scenes spent partying with his pal Zion (Travis Scott) on a stripper-filled yacht — leave a stronger impression. Korine does something strange with potentially lethal side characters, directing them to move in a kind of suspended readiness, like video game henchmen stuck in idle animation loops: There’s a knife fight where combatants endlessly circle one other, or later, a quartet of demon dwarfs who threateningly swing machetes.
Oddly (and somewhat inexplicably), the big showdown between Bo and Toto also feels anticlimactic, despite some pretty intense gore — gore that would’ve been impossible to stomach under photoreal circumstances, but here feels stylized to the point it registers as virtual. What we’re witnessing isn’t death so much as “game over” for one character and victory for the other, though it has that slightly dissatisfying feel of watching someone else play. “Aggro Dr1ft” is immersive, but not interactive. Korine embraces artificial intelligence in some of the textures and skins superimposed on characters, but it all looks a little primitive, like the first iteration of a project that could be re-rendered and possibly even transformed in ways we’re not yet capable of imagining, once the technology catches up with Korine’s format-combusting vision.
As it is, “Aggro Dr1ft” is visually thrilling but somewhat tedious to sit through — better as wallpaper than the main attraction. Still, as with James Cameron’s “Avatar,” there’s wisdom in the generic quality of his script. Cameron was dinged for comic book dialogue and story, but I’ve always argued that was a smart approach for a film in which every other aspect — three-dimensional, 10-foot, blue-skinned alien creatures in an all-virtual world — was potentially mind-blowing. Korine’s gone and embraced a similar strategy, keeping the material familiar while he revolutionizes everything else about the process. Think of this as the beta test for what’s to come.
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