Spree: Post Modern, by David Bax
Self-documentation and broadcast is so commonplace now that describing Eugene Kotlyarenko’s Spree as a “found footage” movie is like calling your phone a “cellphone.” It’s a vestigial term that marks the speaker as a remnant of a time when the distinction mattered. That extra-textual note, though, offers more to chew on than most of the film itself, which is intellectually facile but remains engaging throughout due to Kotlyarenko’s often ingenious filmmaking and an absolutely stellar turn from his live wire star.
Joe Keery is Kurt Kunkle, an aspiring social media influencer who has failed to find an audience and, in his mid-20s, is very much in danger of aging out of the game. To boost viewership and make a name for himself, he decides to livestream his own murder spree, all from the driver’s seat of a rideshare vehicle. Cleverly, Kotlyarenko (who co-wrote the screenplay with Gene McHugh) doesn’t show Kurt announce his plan beforehand, leaving us to find out the facts and details the way his viewers do: as they’re happening and strictly via phone and cam feeds.
That tension, mixed with Kurt’s guilelessness and eagerness to please, sometimes make Spree an almost unbearably queasy watch. Make no mistake, Spree is a comedy–often a very funny one–but it’s a damn sight darker than most self-consciously “dark” comedies because it never fully lets go of the slick, artificially positive tone of the influencer world in which Kurt is trying to succeed.
Where Spree falters is when it steers too smugly into social commentary. I don’t refer, necessarily, to the actual comments that constantly roll up the lower third of the screen, the nature of which suggest that most of Kurt’s viewers are not significantly less depraved than he is. The piece that doesn’t fit into Kotlyarenko’s otherwise seamless satirical creation is the character of Jessie (Sasheer Zamata) a stand-up comedian who has grown her fanbase by being very good at the social media stuff Kurt so longs to master. The conclusions to which Jessie publicly comes about the nature of her fame and followers feels like Kotlyarenko and McHugh lecturing us.
This is especially glaring in light of the fact that it’s been less than two years since the release of Daniel Goldhaber’s Cam, a much more harrowing, nuanced and daring indictment of internet fame. Where Cam favored straight-ahead horror, Spree goes for sick humor and loses some of its depth in the process.
What both films have in common, though, is an unassailable lead performance. Cam‘s Madeline Brewer was already known to fans of The Handmaid’s Tale just like Keery is already known to fans of Stranger Things. But both are a revelation to me (Brewer went on to be terrific again in last year’s Hustlers). Keery gives Kurt a puppy dog idiocy that repeatedly makes you feel bad for him and then, through his commitment to Kurt’s smiling psychosis, reminds you that you’re watching a monster at work. For all of Spree‘s problems, its worth lies in being an early entry in what’s likely to be an exciting career from Keery.