Producers: Matthew Budman, Sumaiya Kaveh, John Long and Eugene Kotlyarenko Director: Eugene Kotlyarenko Screenplay: Gene McHugh and Eugene Kotlyarenko Cast: Joe Keery, Sasheer Zamata, David Arquette, Kyle Mooney, Mischa Barton, Frankie Grande, Lala Kent, Linas Phillips, John DeLuca, Sunny Kim, Caroline Hebert and Josh Ovalle Distributor: RLJE Films
If you’re at all concerned about the baleful influence of social media on contemporary society and the mindless lust for on-line popularity that drives many of its users, Eugene Kotlyarenko’s violent satire will provide ample confirmation that your anxieties are not misplaced. “Spree” aims to be a “Taxi Driver” for the modern age, and though it comes off as more an exploitative symptom of the disease than a cautionary commentary on it, you have to be impressed by its flamboyance even while deploring it.
Joe Keery, Steve Harrington of “Stranger Things,” gives a maniacal performance as Kurt Kunkle, a wannabe social influencer who’s been posting video blogs under the rubric “Kurt’s World” for a decade, never attracting more than a handful of followers. To add insult to injury, one of his “followers” is Bobby (Josh Ovalle), a kid he used to babysit, who’s become an internet star and keeps track of Kurt’s stuff just to needle him.
Kurt’s depressed about his failure—and his home life, which he describes in some of his tedious postings—but one day has a brainstorm. A driver with a ride-hail outfit called Spree for awhile, he outfits his car with cameras and plastic bottles of drugged water and sets off to attract viewers by killing his passengers. He trumpets his aspirations by inviting people to join what he pompously calls “The Lesson.”
His initial targets—an unapologetic racist, a sexist pig, a coolly condescending dame—are so easy to dislike that Kurt’s exuberantly malevolent gabbing is creepily sympathetic by comparison. But when he meets Jessie Adams (Sasheer Zamata), a local stand-up comic who has achieved online celebrity herself, he begins to focus on her support as a means of enhancing his own value as a so-called influencer of taste.
Kurt becomes, in fact, a stalker, though his pursuit of Jessie, which takes him to her gig at a local club, doesn’t stand in the way of plenty of other mayhem on the street. More bodies drop—including those of revelers who make the mistake of standing up through the sun roof and that of a cop at a traffic stop—and there are interludes with Kurt’s divorced, druggie DJ dad (David Arquette). Meanwhile the viewership increases, and comments pour into the increasingly frantic live-and-dying feed Kurt’s providing to the world. Naturally his mental stability will crack completely as the night goes on, and his final encounters with Jessie and his father will ultimately bring him the notoriety he’s been seeking so desperately.
As a dark comedy, “Spree” lays claim to far greater outrageousness than it achieves. Its target is much too easy, and the narrative too messily structured. And the ending takes things into more conventional killer-on-the-loose and last-girl-standing territory
Yet there are two elements that make the movie intriguing. One is Keery’s flamboyant performance, which combines over-the-top enthusiasm and a pathetic need for attention in making the guy, for all the ghastliness he represents, credibly human: Kurt Kunkle becomes frightening precisely because Keery somehow manages to make him real. Surrounding him with plenty of actual online “celebrities” like Josh Ovalle also situates Kurt’s obsession in the actual territory he aims to inhabit.
The other is the style, which depends on captured-feed format used in lots of recent slasher movies but doesn’t embrace the stationary laptop-screen perspective that’s made them so insufferably dull. “Spree” is as stylistically frenetic as the title indicates, frequently using multiple-camera images simultaneously in split-screen while viewer comments scroll across the various feeds. The result is chaotic, and frankly exhausting at times (as in the closing montages of the story’s aftermath), but Kotlyarenko, cinematographer Jeff Leeds Cohn and editor Benjamin Moses Smith vary things sufficiently, using quieter episodes as palate cleansers, to keep you from just giving up. (Those viewer comments, incidentally, are horrifyingly on target.) Carlos Laszlo’s production design and Natasha Newman-Thomas’ costumes, meanwhile, accentuate Cohn’s garish color palette, and James Ferraro’s slam-bang music choices add to the frantically off-kilter mood.
One can argue whether “Spree” indicts social-media obsession or just cheerfully embraces it, but if hardly a totally fun ride it’s a fitfully fascinating one.