“Spree” is another tale of socially-isolated/socially-networked lives of quiet desperation gone haywire, a commentary on an amoral age when it’s all about “getting noticed,” no matter how you do it.
As a technical exercise in filmmaking within a small space, frames created by cell-phone cams, GoPros in a car or body cams on a cop, it is a step beyond much of what we’ve seen before. And we’ve seen a lot.
“Unfriended,” “Antisocial,” “Open Windows,” “Livescream,” “Friend Request,” the list is long and goes far beyond the biggest hit of the sub-genre, “Searching,” starring John Cho.
Director Eugene Kotlyarenko (“Wobble Palace”) doesn’t so much take us into the pathetic life that turns out this way as hurl us into the “Spree,” and make that our ride into terror.
But like lives lived online, there’s an emotional remove that works against engagement. We watch lives taken, maybe snicker over our anti hero (Joe Keery of “Stranger Things”) googling “How to dispose of a dead body,” and feel a little dehumanized by it all, even if he doesn’t, even if we keep watching.
Kurt (Keery) has been online since childhood, vlogging his “Kurt’s World” explorations of his banal life since 2009, live-streaming it as that became a thing. He’s got merchandise (hats), a pleasant-enough ease on the screen, and a life that is ordinary in the extreme.
And nobody is watching. Well, except for maybe his divorced, druggy strip-club DJ dad (David Arquette). And he doesn’t watch much.
Kurt pitches himself as an “influencer and content creator,” like pretty much everybody else with a vlog. Which, in the movie’s universe, is pretty much everybody Kurt meets. But every other “influencer” he stumbles across is drawing more attention.
He’s desperate to tap into the audience of those more online-famous. But the one guy he actually knows who has a big following, manic prankster Bobby Base Camp (Joshua Ovalle) barely hides his contempt for Kurt and “Kurt’s World.” Kurt used to be his babysitter, and now he’s this disillusioned, needy dork always hitting up everyone he meets with “follow me and I’ll follow you — follow4follow.”
But the day we meet him (that history is briskly summarized in montage and inter-titles) Kurt is taking us into a new direction he’s sure will make him “go viral.” He’s a ride-share driver for Spree. He’s packed his car with cameras, and promises us lots of “interaction” with his passengers, who are told the cameras are there “for safety” — his, and theirs.
Damned if his first Altadena, California ride of the day isn’t a racist on his way to a big meeting, giving Kurt the “Say it with me, ‘I’m white and I’m proud,'” shtick. Kurt rejects that, runs a red light or two and stops short once or twice as punishment. And then the unsuspecting deplorable takes a sip from the bottled water Kurt keeps in the car.
That’s how the day is going. He’s spiked the water, the rider gets a few jolts thanks to Kurt’s recklessness, and a sip or two later, they disappear. At first.
“Spree” skips over the “body disposal” bit for the first few rides, gives us flashbacks where Kurt lays out everything he’s going to do and how he will do it, via vlog entries, and hurls us into the horror of a spree killer on the prowl.
Picking up a web-famous comic (Sasheer Zamata of “The Last O.G.” and “Saturday Night Live,” terrific) ups the ante, as she has viewership to offer, if he can just tap into it. She’s not having it, or the unpleasant “shared” rideshare she’s trapped in with a dirtbag (John DeLuca).
Kotlyarenko, who co-wrote the script with Gene McHugh, busies up the frame with split screens, live comments on cell-phone shots, the works.
The few moments of suspense come early and late. How WILL Kurt dispatch a car full of partiers? What WILL he do to tap into Bobby’s audience, comedienne Jessie’s live set?
When WILL the cops notice people are disappearing in the middle of ridesharing?
The best running gag is how almost EVERYone Kurt meets — from the partying 20somethings to a stripper who “broke through” with a sex tape — live streams and has viewers. But not Kurt.
Keery makes a believable “incel,” as more than one freaked-out, insulting rider labels him. The pleasant, needy demeanor may not match the murderous turn he’s taken, and “explaining” that is futile — not that the script doesn’t try to in the most obvious ways.
I have to say I went along with it, more amused by the craft and bursts of wit and gripped by a bit of tension, here and there, than appalled by the inhumanity. It taps into our shared phobia about ridesharing and “over-sharing,” not that EVERYbody is alarmed by these phenomena.
As social media murder movies go, we’ve all seen worse. Not a resounding endorsement, even if needy Kurt would treat it as such.
MPAA Rating: unrated, graphic violence, profanity, drug abuse discussed
Cast: Joe Keery, Sasheer Zamata, Joshua Ovalle and David Arquette.
Credits: Directed by Eugene Kotlyarenko, script by Eugene Kotlyarenko, Gene McHugh An RLJE release.
Running time: 1:35