Review: SPREE, Lensed by Jeff Leeds Cohn, is like Joker for the Extremely Online Generation
August 14, 2020

by Matt Patches, Polygon

Logline: Desperate for subscribers, an awkward young man turns his ride-share car into a livestream death trap.

Longerline: In an introduction to his scuzzy, thriller-comedy Spree, writer-director Eugene Kotlyarenko (Wobble Palace) warned Sundance-goers to turn off their phones — partially out of courtesy, but mostly to avoid confusion. The vérité-style romp cuts between Instagram feeds, body cams, and the angle of a Carpool Karaoke-style car rig to create a maelstrom of screen time. In the vein of Unfriended or Searching, Kotlyarenko traps viewers in the suffocating screens of everyday life, then stretches the limitations of the format by staging violent mayhem.

From beginning to end, Kurt (Stranger Things’ Joe Keery) is glued to his phone, hoping the next video will skyrocket his online brand Kurt’s World to the top of social charts. But Kurt is adrift and maladjusted, and doesn’t have that certain something to captivate an audience with his documented day-to-day activities. So he ditches the vlogging for what he dubs “#TheLesson,” a fool-proof plan to gain followers. The gist: commit lots and lots of murder. And his victims come to him, hailing the serial killer to various corners of Los Angeles using the Uber-adjacent app Spree.

As Kurt becomes more desperate for engagement (“SMASH THAT SUBSCRIBE BUTTON ... LINK IN THE BIO”), his stunts become more gruesome. Each passing rider — everyone from a buttoned-up white supremacist to Mischa Barton — cranks the vice of Kurt’s mental state. Though he never loses his chipper, vlogger veneer, a comedian who makes going viral look easy (SNL’s Sasheer Zamata) and a teen prankster with a captivated audience (Vine star Josh Ovalle) finally send him off the rails. Kotlyarenko mirrors the breakdown through rapid crosscutting and three-way vertical split-screen. It’s a comedy.

The quote that says it all: “Hey, how did you grow your following?”

What’s it trying to do? If Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker discovered Snapchat instead of face paint, he may have wound up in the driver’s seat of Spree. Kurt is a well-meaning dweeb caught in the well-documented vortex of social media, and while his actions are reprehensible, the movie portrays him as a victim of circumstance. His parents are divorced, he has no evident friends, and the unchecked algorithms of Silicon Valley product put worms in his brain. White male privilege might be the factor that pushed him to embark on a killing spree over, say, logging off and taking a nap, but Spree doesn’t put the explanation in blunt terms. Like Arthur Fleck, Rupert Pumpkin, and other twisted protagonist ancestors, Kurt simply follows the voices in his head — plus the hundreds of others that start piling up in the comment section when his livestream does start getting noticed.

Does it get there? Considering how heavy that sounds, there’s not too much under the surface of Kurt’s violent ride. Kotlyarenko keeps Spree from becoming a present-set Black Mirror by opting for jokes over profound moments of psychological dissection. The result is a movie gushing with gags and a few moments that get too real for its own good. Killing a clichéd Los Angeles club-goer with a motorized drill is wacky! Brutal gun violence baked into an emoji-filled livestream gets a bit uncomfortable. Luckily, the tonal whiplash is rare for Spree, which zips from vignette to vignette on the back of an all-in performance.

Keery’s take on Kurt is firmly in the “mumbling, overly confident, fame-chasing Kyle Mooney character” family (which is extra funny because Mooney eventually shows up in Spree). Armed with the tics of a knock-off Logan Paul, the actor dominates the confined space of the murder sedan with exaggerated, in-your-face antics. And he never gives up on the act, even when the most despicable passengers hassle him from the back seat. The YouTube-devouring, under-30 crowd will respect the cringey nuance of Keery’s performance the most, but the physicality demanded by the found footage style — playing to the car cameras, handling the iPhone — is gripping and transcendent. Kotlyarenko also gifts Zamata room to perform her comedy, jump into the action, and sick burn losers left and right. The dynamic pair keeps the film revving even when the gore starts feeling repetitive.

What does that get us? A horror-laced comedy that barrels forward with a full tank of gas. Spree isn’t scary (though a glimpse into Kurt’s proliferating 4chan fandom is absolutely terrifying), but it is wildly entertaining. Between Extremely Online life and Keery’s relentless performance, Kotlyarenko wrings every ounce of comedy out of a premise that could easily be “ok boomer”-ed out of the room by critical eyes who know their YouTube. People who discover Spree will never hear the word “content” the same way ever again.

The most meme-able moment: The opening, a series of Kurt’s terrible “Hey guys” vlogs. There will soon be a new vocabulary for dunking on social media stars, and they all involve Joe Keery.

When can we see it? Spree is an independent production that premiered at Sundance, and it’s currently seeking distribution.

Director of Photography: Jeff Leeds Cohn