Aggro Dr1ft: Harmony Korine finds new ways to freak us out with his mashed-up media experiment

Harmony Korine’s fragmented hitman movie, filmed using thermal imaging technology and other glorious dark arts, immerses the viewer in a nightmarish stew of colours and violence.

5 September 2023

By Nicolas Rapold

Aggro Dr1ft (2023)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2023 Venice International Film Festival 

“The old world is no more,” intones the assassin-for-hire in Harmony Korine’s latest cinematic assault on the senses, Aggro Dr1ft, which melds thermal imaging, hip hop braggadocio, video game vibes, and other fumes into a sensuous, lucid-dream haze. With human figures and landscapes rendered in infra-red’s trademark pooling of contours, like day-glo gasoline slicks, the movie is less a matter of story and character than it is about keyed-up headspaces and raved-up palettes. Hit man Bo (Spanish actor Jordi Mollà) moves through a Bardo-like Miami underworld, killing and ruminating his way to a final showdown, reeling off personal mantras (“Dropping bodies, dropping souls”) that teeter on the brink of existential spiralling.

The drift of the movie consists of Bo killing a couple of people (starting with a poolside garroting during which he’s shadowed by some kind of demonic avatar), visiting with his doting wife and children, and battling a gangster nemesis who taunts him from afar. But thermal imaging has a way of denaturing faces and expressions and disorienting the viewer, in a movie already composed of more fragments than outright scenes, while most spoken word sounds like looped-in musings (partly in the style of video game dialogue) even when it’s ostensibly said aloud. These aren’t knocks against the movie, which is quite openly more interested in immersing us in a stew of colours (cobalt blues, hot reds, electric yellows), ambient and actual violence, and ruminations.

A Korine creation, generally speaking, is trying to break your brain and free it at the same time with a liberating wrongness. When fellow Venice premiere The Beast needs to deploy outré video for one scene, Bertrand Bonello uses unidentified clips from Korine’s Trash Humpers (2009). Instead of stunting in latex oldster masks, the perverse formal premise of Aggro Dr1ft is to take the visual styling of infra-red – normally used for a single heightened sequence or scene – and make it the baseline, the blood-warm aesthetic of the whole thing. Besides the eye-goggling effect, it’s also a neat expression of the killer’s mercenary perspective, expert at turning warm bodies cold, though it feels less predatory in mood than simply hypervivid, a merging of materialistic and metaphysical.

But Korine is also an expert mixer, or clasher, or casting agent for reality: a fundamental move of his has been to match American skater-video anarchy with the craft of European cinematographers (Benoit Debîe, Gaspar Noé’s go-to DP, being especially instrumental, on Spring Breakers, 2012). So Aggro Dr1ft is not simply a matter of slapping on a thermal-imaging filter – other glorious dark arts swirl alongside, like rotoscoping and (if I’m understanding Korine’s own words correctly) AI algorithms. These help create hallucinogenic moments such as skulls superimposed on faces (almost recalling Norman Bates in Psycho, 1960), or assorted dial-turning and fine-tuning that keep switching up the look of the thermal imaging, so it is not simply a one-to-one predictable assortment of gradients and shapes – and so a boat containing a hot tub full of twerking partiers turns into a roiling seascape.

AraabMuzik’s ambient score is also key to Korine’s mash-up, spinning out ominous samples and washes and sending us adrift on dark seas – witness how the curdled soap-opera keyboarding and other opening soundscapes later shatters with a ear-splitting falcon cry. Music is part of the genesis of Aggro Dr1ft more generally too: Korine collaborates with multi hyphenate rap star Travis Scott, who appears as a visionary up-and-comer killer named Zion, in rather limited scenes mostly in the second half of the movie, and is occasionally given a flicking lizard tongue. (The sole extended dialogue scene between Bo and Zion features a riotous exchange about Julius Caesar.) Given Scott’s sprawling entrepreneurial portfolio – from his Astroworld Festival to tie-ins with McDonald’s – Aggro Dr1ft arguably belongs to the musician’s universe as much as the reverse; Korine co-directed Scott’s recent film project Circus Maximus.

What’s almost endearing about Korine’s urge to freak out is how he can’t resist good old-fashioned shocks like a decapitated head and some pooling blood (or a troop of diminutive warriors, apparently in raincoats, inexpertly waving machetes). Which is to say, the novel world of mashed-up media that Korine envisions as part of his future work still has some ways to go before it feels as nightmare-fuel-ish as a destabilising hour spent bingeing TikToks. But though it can feel repetitive, Aggro Dr1ft joins Korine’s proud lineage of feature works that drop us into twisted fun-mirror worlds and leave us scrambling for footing.

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