The world of social-media influencers vying for clicks, eyeballs, retweets, and viral fandom is a sick one, and that’s never been more apparent than during the pandemic. People are stuck inside, and anyone with even a modicum of celebrity is desperate for attention, scrambling to create content with quantifiable impact despite the obvious limitations. And mostly, as we’ve seen in such horrors as that “Imagine” video, they suck at it. Director Eugene Kotlyarenko’s “Spree,” co-written with Gene McHugh, therefore couldn’t arrive at a better time, centering on “Stranger Things” star Joe Keery as a Gen-Z wannabe influencer whose thirst for internet fame turns him into a serial killer who live-streams his murders while posing as a friendly-faced rideshare driver.
This scrappy indie, strung together by GoPros, dash cams, Reddit threads, and cell-phone footage, has an utterly bananas cast that feels oh-so-LA, as well as a charismatic performance by a committed, psychotic Keery. What “Spree” lacks in deep insight into the demimonde of social-media whoredom — and who wants that anyway? Yawn. — it more than compensates for as a lurid and soulless entertainment spectacle, boasting a giddily escalating kill count that’s simply a blast to behold.
Aspiring social-media superstar and probable incel Kurt (Keery), going by the handle “KurtsWorld96,” can barely get more than a few likes on his bland Instagram content. That might have something to do with the fact that his family relocated from Los Angeles to the San Gabriel suburban community of Azusa, a far-cry from the squalid splendor and deluded dreams of LA. Nothing to see here. Meanwhile, his arch rival is known as BobbyBasecamp (Joshua Ovalle), the Insta sensation Kurt used to babysit, and an ingratiating twerp who has no trouble drumming up the likes.
Kurt figures that in order to catch viral attention, he needs to do something extreme. If it bleeds, it leads, as they say, and so in “Nightcrawler” fashion, Kurt sets out to blow up his feed by killing people, live on camera, while driving for Spree, a platform that’s basically the same as Uber or Lyft, but with a built-in social-media component thanks to its “Spree Social” option. Your biggest takeaway from this movie might be to never accept a plastic water bottle from your Uber driver again. Never mind the BPA compounds — it could be spiked with an invisible poison that leads to instant, painful death!
Kurt’s passengers range from a white supremacist to an unapologetic misogynist and a reality-TV star, all factions of the social underbelly that Kotlyarenko delights in killing off onscreen. Eventually, Kurt ends up scooping LA comedian Jessie Adams (an enviably cool Sasheer Zamata), who already has the kind of hungry online fanbase Kurt hopes to achieve. With each scene, “Spree” reveals another wild cast member, from Frankie Grande as a trashy queen (so, himself) to “Vanderpump Rules'” Lala Kent to David Arquette as Kurt’s barely-there junkie father. Mischa Barton shows up as quickly as she’s eliminated, in a splashy moment of gore that establishes Kurt as a deeper level of psychopath than previously imagined.
Keery, all dead eyes and phony grins, makes the transformation believable, and in retrospect, inevitable. “Spree” saves the nastiest twist for last, and it’s safe to say, by the end, Kurt has thousands of people watching his murderous spiral. The final frames of this movie are cynical and brilliant, a twisted punchline to what is essentially an extended joke about our obsessive quest for content, content, content, and the ways we turn even the most problematic of internet personalities into folk heroes.
Kotlyarenko shoots and cuts with the frenzy of an unmedicated ADHD case, and the hyperactive pace might be too much for the squeamish. This movie, much like the smartphone-addicted generation it seems to skewer, can’t sit still. Split screens are used to show multiple social media streams in tandem, and often to dizzying, “Sliding Doors”-like effect. Car chases abound. With every Spree ride, the bodies pile up. A standup set from Kyle Mooney is thrown into the mix. The movie’s collage-like, do-it-yourself style suggests an eagerness on the director’s part to play with all possible mediums of the moment in the way that New Wave filmmakers did in the 1960s and ’70s. The difference here is that “Spree” proudly has no soul.
Toward the end of the film, Kurt goes careening through a tent-packed homeless encampment (a way too familiar sight for Angelenos) in a moment as sickly cringey as it is hilarious. You hate yourself for laughing. Kotlyarenko is allergic to wokeness and the politically correct, which makes for a refreshingly foul gust of air in a moment of increased pressure for propriety in art. But by the same coin, the utter pointlessness of this scene just further underscores the movie’s unending nihilism, and you have to wonder if Kotlyarenko is merely trolling us all, and to what ends. “Spree” is a found-footage horror movie for the “Joker” age, mean-spirited and heartless. What’s the point, you might ask? The point is that there isn’t one.
“Spree” premieres in select theaters, and on digital and VOD Friday, August 14 from RLJE Films.