Spree (2020)

What a year it’s been, right? No need to go into the details. Sorry to have been away so long. I’ve been screaming into the void. I’m sure you have too. Let’s talk about a movie.

So Erstwhile Roommate of Boomer reached out to me last week and was like, “Have you done enough void screaming for the weekend? Do you want to watch a movie together and then Zoom after?” And I was like, “Yes, this is the new paradigm. We are very far behind on Into the Dark, or we could catch up on the shows we used to watch together. There’s a new season of Lucifer and we’re like two seasons behind on 3% now.” So he advised he would check with Current Roommate of Erstwhile Roommate of Boomer and the consensus was that we would watch Spree. I googled it and the first thing I saw was “executive produced by Drake” and I thought to myself “The Aubrey Drake Graham of Degrassi the Next Generation fame? That’s worth a seven dollar rental!” If you’re going to watch Spree, you should go in completely blind like I did, but you’re already here so here’s the gist. 

Spree tells the story of Kurt Kunkle (Joe Keery, aka Steve from Stranger Things or Gabe from Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, depending on your Kinsey score), a sad California boy who was born in LA but spent much of his life growing up in less glamorous surroundings. Desperate to join the world of the influencer elite, he’s spent his whole life in emulation of social media culture with no success, the never-was yang to the yin of his has-been father (David Arquette).  Desperate for a sense of meaning, he plans what he believes is a guaranteed path to social cachet through a “lesson” in growing an internet following over the course of a single shift as a driver for rideshare app Spree. Navigating the clogged arteries of the roadway, he comes into contact with a few “celebrities” of various kinds, including up-and-coming stand-up comedienne Jessie Adams (Sasheer Zamata), who is in the process of leveraging her similar-to-but-legally-distinct-from (henceforth STBLDF) Instagram following into a comedy career, as well as uNo (Sunny Kim), an internet-famous DJ serving as a dark mirror of Kurt, focused solely on brand-building and mining her real life for content. Throughout the night, Kurt is egged on by “BobbyBasecamp” (Josh Ovalle), a kid whom he babysat in his youth and who has since grown into a teenaged (STBLDF) Twitch streamer with a massive following.

Perpetually astride a glowing self-balancing scooter and with a neck-mounted streaming camera which is ready to go at a moment’s notice with a few taps, Bobby is the epitome of nouveau célébrité. His presentation borrows heavily from the rhetorical strategies and spaces of omnipresent social media cultural touchstones, living in a garish mansion that captures the embarrassing excess of Jake Paul, possessing the hair-trigger temper and toxicity of “famous for screaming” Twitch stars like Tyler1, and exhibiting the boyish good looks of someone like Cameron Dallas or whoever the du jour equivalent is (I am old). This also makes him the epitome of what Kurt wants to be: famous and beloved, living a life that is artificially performative over substantively experienced, and above all, popular. Which Kurt finally does become… when he murders Bobby, among others. 

Yes, the “spree” of the title doesn’t refer solely to the (STBLDF) Uber that “employs” Kurt, it also refers to Kurt’s bloody journey from a sad vessel empty of anything other than an all-consuming desire for fame as an abstract concept to the infamous “Rideshare Killer” over the course of single night. Kurt literally charts a path that leads from the area outside LA toward the heart of that city which, more than any other, can embody the emptiness, shallowness, and meaninglessness of fleeting celebrity. It’s not the most original idea, but there’s a certain magic to the way that he begins his trek in the dusty surrounds of LA, amidst the infamous right-wing extremism that lies just outside the urban enclaves of Southern California (his first and most justifiable victim being a soft-spoken neo-Nazi en route to speak to his followers about white supremacy), and works his way through vignettes of the outer “wilderness” of adulterous real-estate-agents-to-the-stars, fame-adjacent misogynist himbos, and an intersection between two DJs (one on the way down and one on the way up), before finding himself amidst a large homeless encampment that girds the underbelly of the celluloid city. Kurt is Dante and LA is hell, with concentric circles of torment in which there is only one sin, vanity, and which only increases in magnitude as one approaches the city’s rotten heart. Each person he encounters is slightly more famous than the last, exemplified by his initial chance meeting with Zamata’s Jessie prior to a potentially career-making performance and their engineered reunion later, after said performance garners her even more celebrity.

As the first victim (that we see) is the aforementioned white supremacist, followed not long after by the asshole himbo who spouts all of our favorite chestnuts about being prettier when smiling, etc., the film at first lulls one into a false sense of security that the audience is about to watch another version of Schumacher’s Falling Down or Goldthwaite’s God Bless America updated for the found-via-social-media footage generation. But while both of those films are at least somewhat invested—with varying levels of success—in maintaining a sense of empathy for their respective leads’ descent into madness, Spree doesn’t have the same values or desire to curry audience insertion into the character’s worldview. Instead, we open with an introduction that tells us, from the outset, that Kurt finally achieved the viral success he sought for so long; as a result, his journey from nobody to somebody is a foregone conclusion, so we are here to be party to the execution(s), not the destination. 

This would be a 5-star film were it not for the intermittent preachiness about the evils of social media. Not content to have the film treat new media as an object about which we can draw our own conclusions, the script is filled with far too many moments of overt negative sentiments expressed via character monologues. In the most tasteless moment of what is an admittedly pretty tasteless film, Kurt drives near the encampment of people experiencing homelessness mentioned before and gives a speech about how the people living there don’t care that they have no social media presence, that they are completely unconcerned that, as far as an increasingly online world is concerned, they don’t exist at all. One can read this as an envious screed, in which Kurt realizes that there are a group of people who are apathetic about the very thing that has consumed his entire existence, or as the screenwriter’s thesis about the emptiness of a digital world in which every interaction is built around the construction of one’s personal “brand” and promotion of self-care and toxic positivity that entail ignoring the social ills that are just a stone’s throw away.

Meta-textually, there’s a lot happening here as well. There’s the intersection of fame from “legitimate” means via traditional media and “illegitimate” fame via new media at play when one of the groups that Kurt picks up contains both Mischa Barton and Frankie Grande. Barton was an actress from childhood who started on the stage and gradually rose to widespread recognition as one of the leads on the wildly popular The O.C., becoming a household name for a time through conventional means. Grande, on the other hand, is the older half-brother of pop music persona Ariana Grande; his cultural prominence is based solely on gaining a large social media following through that association and parlaying that into reality TV appearances and then clawing his way into the pop culture psyche via nepotism and shameless self-promotion, the two driving forces of social media stardom. Later, the climax of the uNo vignette comes as a result of the DJ accidentally finding Kurt’s handgun in the glove compartment and posing with it in a careless fashion. There’s also the exciting novelty of presenting the narrative in various split screens that allow characters to face off against each other while the camera captures both performances in simultaneous shot/reverse shot instead of from an objective angle, which is fairly inventive (not to mention all of the dashcams, STBLDF Instagram and Twitch streams, and occasional security footage). 

As the story continues, Kurt’s initial underwatched stream slowly grows to encompass a huge audience, especially once he takes over Bobby’s stream. Suddenly thousands of people are watching, and we see them respond in their comments: memes emerge in real time as viewers type out parts of Kurt’s insane monologue and repeat them to each other as the stream goes on; various audience members beg Kurt to admit that his killing of Bobby was faked for the views while others comment about how “fake” the whole thing is and congratulate themselves for seeing through it; and, of course, there are various combinations of Kurt’s name with homophobic slurs. There’s also one comment that calls out Jessie’s performance outfit as making her look like a Minion, which is comedy gold. As the intensity ramps up, so does the speed of these comments, requiring complete attention to keep up with everything that is happening at all times. These little moments and metacommentaries provide a much more fulfilling denigration of social media as a concept than Kurt driving his car through tents full of disadvantaged people or Jessie turning her stand-up performance into a rant about the need to disconnect (it’s well acted by Zamata, but doesn’t really seem like something that would spark much interest online, if we’re being honest).

These intrusions of finger-wagging into the narrative are all that hold Spree back from being truly great, as it otherwise demonstrates a profound understanding of the relationship between new and traditional media, the power of and potential for abuse within internet discourse, and the deleterious effect on mental health on a societal level that can result from a pivot towards a social reward system that depends upon toxic narcissism. Kurt has no desire to garner fame for money, political power, to increase his sexual desirability, or as a means of class mobility: notability, in and of itself, is the goal. It’s the timeless tale of wanting to be popular, with no other goal. He lives in a completely different economic system where clout is currency, and even disengagement from that alternate reality doesn’t make one safe from its reach. In the film’s closing moments, we are treated to the best demonstration of writer/director Eugene Kotlyarenko’s understanding of the foibles of media in all of its forms. The film’s “epilogue” consists of reactions in the aftermath to the titular spree through a series of article titles and forum posts. From initial reactions to the so-called Rideshare Killer, to “we don’t say his name” thinkpieces (complete with a link to the related article “A Complete List of the Names We Don’t Say,” which haha and also ouch), to Kurt becoming a hero of incels in STBLDF 4chan, there’s a lot of meat on these bones that I have no doubt will reward multiple rewatches. Were it not for the moments where that subtlety is pushed aside for onstage phone-smashing antics and vapid soliloquies that spell things out for the dullards in the audience, this would be an instant classic.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

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