[Review] 'Spree' Takes a Darkly Comedic Look at Social Media & Celebrity While Killing Social Media Celebrities
Once upon a time, maybe ten years ago, getting into a stranger’s car and trusting them to drive you to a location of your choosing was seen as dangerous...
...Around that same time, people began to realize that social media does more to alienate us from the real world than bring us closer together, and tying our self-worth to "likes" and "views" was not the way to find happiness. Releasing a movie that explored these subjects seven or even four years ago would have been timely and probably more interesting. Instead, Spree has arrived in 2020 telling us what we already know: social media is bad, and your ride-share driver might be crazy.
Spree stars Joe Keery (Stranger Things) as Kurt Kunkle, a lonely Angelino who has spent years trying to build his social media presence to no effect. We join Kurt as he embarks on a night of ride-share driving with a plan to build his following by doing something truly crazy. The film is shot in a found footage adjacent format; we watch events play out inside Kurt’s car through strategically placed GoPros and camera phones. It soon becomes clear that Kurt hopes to gain more viewers by killing as many people as possible. If the plot sounds familiar, it's because it's sort of what happens in Scream 4 and 15 Minutes. It should be shocking and farfetched, but in a world where Logan Paul, Milo Yiannopoulos and the god damn president exist, this film's premise doesn't seem all that unlikely.
Directed by Eugene Kotlyarenko and written by Kotlyarenko and Gene McHugh, Spree is a horror comedy that is light on the laughs and the horror. The redeeming elements of this film come mostly from Keery being very likeable, even as a psycho, and the creative editing that turns what could have been a static and repetitive visual style into something surprising and fun.
Other found footage films make halfhearted, hard-to-believe explanations for how their films were edited (is there really an in-house editor at the NSA who cuts together the footage from Cloverfield or Quarantine to build a somewhat reasonable narrative complete with opening title card explaining where the footage came from?), but Spree makes it very clear that Kurt's fans put this film together as a tribute to his crazy night. It's an easy explanation to accept, and I appreciate the time the filmmakers took to think about how this movie would come into being.
The message of the film—that mental illness can be amplified by living in a cruel world and the dangers of turning to fame to fill the emptiness of daily life—is similar to films like Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy, with a slightly different approach. It is not about the origins of his madness, or any sort of slow decline. Rather, Spree starts with Kurt already knowing what he's going to do and how he's going to do it. The movie drops viewers into the passenger seat and leaves us to parse out meanings.
Spree is very much a movie of the moment. The actions take place in a specific period in American culture where celebrity can be found by posting videos of playing video games and shameless self-branding. The cinematography, editing, and content all work together to give the viewer the sense that we are watching something happen right this moment. As the story progresses and Kurt's weak grasp of reality slips, the editing and pacing become more wild and frenetic resulting in an exciting final act.
The nature of the story requires characters to arrive, be menaced by Kurt, and leave the film forever. As a result, almost every character that isn't Kurt is only on screen for a few minutes before being dispatched. Kurt's victims include many once-famous individuals who have begun to fade into obscurity. From a practical standpoint, this structure allowed the filmmakers to cast recognizable actors at a discount.
Thematically, the fleeting way characters arrive and disappear presents a statement on modern celebrity culture. Partway through the film, we are thrust into a scene with Frankie Grande (Big Brother), Lala Kent (Vanderpump Rules), and Mischa Barton (The Hills: New Beginnings). All three play vapid Angelinos who are lured to their doom by the promise of some Instagram worthy pics, courtesy of Kurt. Placing these three in the same scene pulls viewers out of the story while we struggle to remember where we've seen these people before.
This scene brings the nature of reality TV celebrity under a microscope. Kurt is chasing down fame while these characters and caricatures have already enjoyed their 15 minutes before disappearing. They may still be around, but none of them have maintained a spot center-stage of the public consciousness for some time. They are cautionary warnings to both Kurt and viewers.
In slightly larger roles, we have David Arquette (Scream), Sasheer Zamata (Saturday Night Live and The Last O.G.), and Kyle Mooney (also from SNL). The film favors these actors, giving them backstories, goals, and personalities. Zamata's character draws Kurt's attention when he realizes she is famous and that he can use her to get more followers if she'd only tag him in one of her videos, and his obsession with her drives most of the second half of the film. While it is nice to see real talents like Zamata and Mooney in this movie, they aren't given the opportunity to show their strengths, as both become fairly one-sided stand-ins for types.
Spree takes a familiar message about the dangers of celebrity culture and puts it into a new-ish setting. The film becomes exciting by the end with a foreboding sense of finality coming at us at 70 miles per hour. But the fun conclusion comes only after waiting through an hour of repetitive and plodding storytelling, and the film delivers its message through casting rather than character or actions. Though the presentation is interesting, I only wish Spree had something new to say.
Spree becomes available in select theaters, drive-ins, on demand and digital August 14th from RLJE Films.
By Mark Gonzales