But that’s exactly what Director and Screenwriter Eugene Kotlyarenko (along with Co-Screenwriter Gene McHugh) manage to pull off in a film that is as provocative as it is shockingly comedic. If the test of a dark comedy is the extent to which you feel slightly ashamed and a little bit guilty at what you just found funny, then Spree is definitely on the right track.
Joe Keery (you’ll probably recognise him as Steve, Nancy Wheeler’s baseball bat wielding boyfriend from Stranger Things) is Kurt Kunkle, a loser who’s terminally envious of Bobby (Josh Ovalle) the kid he used to babysit, who now is ‘killing it’ in the popularity stakes on social media. Kurt comes up with a plan to go viral by livestreaming his #thelesson about how to get followers on the internet. Unfortunately, Kurt’s idea of ‘killing it’ is a little more literal that Bobby’s. Kurt decks out his ‘Spree’ vehicle with multiple cameras and sets off on the killing spree that gives the film’s title its pun. As he picks up ridesharers and dispatches them faster than Sweeny Todd, he becomes frustrated at the lack of response and the tendency of his few followers to doubt the authenticity of the murders they are witnessing. Then Kurt sees an opportunity - one of his passengers is streaming sensation Jessie Adams (Sasheer Zamata) but she totally snubs his attempts to ingratiate himself into her online world.
It’s moments like this and others along the way, that continually remind us of Kunkle’s total lack of cool, especially in the scenes that involve his slightly creepy and equally no-hoper, DJ dad Kris Kunkle (David Arquette) who takes Kurt along to a club where his son’s desperation for fame prompts him to do almost anything for just one selfie with influencer uNo (Sunny Kim). But it’s here that things start to go seriously wrong (not that they were ever really right) and before long we’ve circled back to Jessie Adams and the film’s most interesting moment as she reflects on the emptiness and futility of her online persona, vowing to walk away from it all only to find that Kurt, inadvertently presents her with a horrifying opportunity that proves too good to refuse. Like any addict, her resolve to quit is no match for the promise of the endorphin rush that comes from the likes and emojis on those little blue screens. Whilst its observations and commentary on the dangers of extreme behaviours and experiences on the internet may not go much deeper than the surface, it still manages to make a point without its ‘message’ being a buzzkill.
Spree is not the first movie to delve into the lure of manufactured mass popularity and its power over susceptible personalities that allow their jealousy of the faux adoration achieved by others to drive them past the bounds of acceptability. Before the internet, it was the kind of media coverage afforded a character like Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). More recently, we’ve seen similar ideas tackled in films like Ariel Schulman & Henry Joost’s Nerve (2016) or Matt Spicer’s Ingrid Goes West (2017) or even Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019). The difference here is Kotlyarenko’s reworking of the found-footage genre to deliver the bulk of his story in imagery from the online environment. It makes for a busy screen with multiple images and constant alerts and messaging that gives the eye-brain connection a bit of a workout. But it’s worth the effort and owes a lot to great work by Cinematographer Jeff Leeds Cohn and Editor Benjamin Moses Smith.
On the downside, though, the engagement with the storytelling eventually suffers (as is often the case in found- footage films) from the limitations of the dominant camera-point-of-view and the sameness of visual information, albeit rapid and loud and colourful, that eventually creates a kind of weariness in the viewer (at least it does for me). There are also limitations of another kind, in the performance by Keery which is spot on in his capturing of the loser but falls a little short of the mark in achieving the manic edge of desperation needed to do what Kurt does with no remorse. (it’s the kind of terrifying, grinning energy that Joaquin Phoenix brings to Joker that Keery doesn’t quite reach).
What it gets really right, though (as I’m informed by my teenage son) is the live streaming, social media, meme- obsessed culture. Allowing for the fact that the content of this world goes out of style far quicker than you can make a feature film (meaning that some of the online and social media references are already out-of-date before the movie’s even released) it authentically captures that screen world and the inanity of the relentless, mindless communication that goes along with it.
So, some minor misgivings aside, (and if you’ll excuse the pun) this film is a ride that’s well worth taking. Just be warned, if your Uber has GoPro’s trained on you from every angle, then don’t drink the free water.