A satire which settles for hitting the same easy target (social media = bad) over and over again – a horror exercise without scares”
By Thomas Puhr.
The horrific lengths to which some will go for even a fleeting glimpse of internet “fame” inspires public disgust and fascination alike. Netflix’s Don’t F**k with Cats (2019), despite some critical backlash and that uncomfortably-glib title, was a massive hit for the streaming service. 2020’s Tiger King became an instant phenomenon during the global lockdown. Such miniseries are an odd sort of comfort food: cheap and unhealthy, but undeniably alluring. We watch and shake our heads in disbelief, but when that next episode cues up, who amongst us hasn’t succumbed to the lure of the binge watch? I won’t pretend I haven’t.
Eugene Kotlyarenko’s Spree (2020) tries to tap into our media-saturated zeitgeist, one in which figures like Luke Magnotta and Joe Exotic have become warped pseudo-celebrities, and Instagram influencers and Youtubers have made fortunes posing with products and reviewing fast food in their cars. These trends are practically begging for the satirical takedown they so richly deserve. But the film’s painfully on-the-nose commentary and snide, self-satisfied humor prevent it from being either insightful or even superficially entertaining. The end result is a satire which settles for hitting the same easy target (social media = bad) over and over again, a horror exercise without scares, and a comedy which elicits no more than a smattering of chuckles.
Joe Keery (Stranger Things) stars as Kurt Kunkle (yes, that’s actually his name), a wannabe internet personality who, minutes into the film, devises a scheme to expand his fanbase. A driver for “Spree,” an Uber stand-in, he furnishes the inside of his car with several high-tech cameras and records passengers as he kills them with poisoned water bottles. He’s going on a killing spree while working for Spree. Get it? Just in case you don’t, Kotlyarenko and co-writer Gene McHugh make sure to throw in lines about how some people would “kill for more followers.” Subtlety is not their strong suit, their patronizing dialogue sounding like something a smug high schooler would write after reading their first Onion article.
Naturally, Kurt’s crimes become increasingly sadistic and over-the-top. Some of these developments work, and it’s kind of amusing to watch an exasperated Kurt – having just killed multiple people on camera – wonder how he still hasn’t reached viewers in the double digits. But even in these early, semi-promising scenes, the satire is far too broad to carry any sting. Kurt’s very first customer during his titular spree, which he calls “The Lesson,” is a poorly-sketched caricature: a Neo-Nazi who casually complains to Kurt about “snowflakes” and “libtards,” as if the character exists merely to namecheck alt-right rhetoric. Don’t get me wrong: blunt-force mockery can, and has, worked (Idiocracy and Burn After Reading come to mind as fairly recent examples), but these writers lack Mike Judge’s or the Coen Brothers’ piercing wit.
The only character who closely approximates a real human is Jessie Adams (Sasheer Zamata), an up-and-coming comedian who has the misfortune of stepping into Kurt’s car. Her reactions to him – which realistically evolve from discomfort, to pity, to fear – generate some actual pathos. Having turned her internet presence into a popular stand-up career, she has everything Kurt so desperately desires. But Jessie is ultimately reduced to an avatar for the filmmaker, her climactic comedy set becoming yet another opportunity for the latter to wag his finger at audiences for lapping up movies like, well, this one. Brief appearances from David Arquette as Kurt’s absent father and Kyle Mooney as a leachy comedian are similarly squandered. Though he appears game for shedding his squeaky-clean Stranger Things persona, Keery isn’t given much to work with, either, and his character’s cloying antics aren’t nearly as edgy as Kotlyarenko and company seem to think.
Admittedly, the film is something of a small technical feat. The screen, which is sometimes split into three separate video feeds, each accompanied by a ceaseless barrage of live comments from viewers at home (most of whom assume Kurt’s adventures are staged), becomes a central motif in and of itself, a stylized replication of what we see every day when scrolling through our phones. Although the director incorporates other sources, like the cameras inside Kurt’s car, much of the film takes place in that ubiquitous five inch screen. It’s pretty impressive, therefore, that the action remains cohesive and avoids that scourge of the found footage subgenre: the so-called “shaky cam” or “queasy cam.”
What Kotlyarenko seems to have ignored, however, is that social media video posts become incredibly annoying after about 30 seconds, if that. Stretched to 90 minutes, the conceit becomes tiresome. These shortcomings pale in comparison, however, to Spree’s central flaw: Rather than being about cultural vapidity, the film is a shining example of it.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.