'Spree': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
An intriguing ride, for those who don't run screaming from social-media overload.

'Stranger Things' castmember Joe Keery plays a homicidal ride-hail driver in Eugene Kotlyarenko's social media-oriented thriller.

A serial-killer flick that couldn't possibly be more of its moment, Eugene Kotlyarenko's Spree sets the world's thirstiest wannabe influencer off on one final, lethal quest for followers. Stranger Things' sneakily charming Joe Keery gets the spotlight here, balancing the character's contradictory aspects (dork, fumbling people pleaser, psychopath) with ease. While one might hope its conceit will soon seem as bizarre to viewers as, say, those of The Sliderule Slayings or The Great Angelfire Die-In, for now, it may hit closer to home than some will admit.

Keery's Kurt — make that KurtsWorld96, and please retweet — has been making diaristic YouTube vids and other media for a decade, blathering about everything from 9/11 to the (moribund) career of his father, DJ Kris (David Arquette). Unsurprisingly, he is unfollowed. Worse, he's had to watch while a kid he used to babysit, Bobby, has become a sensation online at BobbyBasecamp. (According to press notes, Josh Ovalle, who plays Bobby, actually is " a well-known social media personality.")

Kurt's been driving for a ride-hail app called Spree for some time, fruitlessly trying to mine the people he meets for "content." Then he has a revelation. We meet him on the morning of a live stream he calls "The Lesson," which he's certain will go viral long before the day is done. He mounts eight cameras around the car, not counting the phone in his hand; fires up his app; and starts killing his passengers.

The first victim, a white nationalist, will not be mourned by many viewers; victims two and three aren't exactly lovable, either. But things get weird with the fourth person to enter Kurt's car, Sasheer Zamata's Jessie Adams, a stand-up comedian who, he learns, is a big deal online. If he could only get her to follow him, perhaps his dreams would come true. But the ride goes poorly, and the only chance he has to hop onto her digital coattails is to go to her gig later that night and try again.

Meanwhile, despite having killed three people, Kurt's stream still has fewer than 10 people watching — and the only engaged one is Bobby, who's just there to mock him. "Add some WTF or GTFO," he helpfully messages. And though Kurt's initially wounded — this killer's a floppy-haired puppy, just needing approval — he eventually obliges. With gusto.

Kotlyarenko and co-writer Gene McHugh start making the kills more novel and, as Kurt finally attracts some viewers, introducing practical concerns. His dad enters the picture for a while, as do a famous DJ named uNo (Sunny Kim), Bobby and finally Jessie again. Attention goes to Kurt's head, and after getting out of a frightening scrape or two, he shouts to his followers that he's "feelin' unstoppable!" That's a disaster-courting boast, but it doesn't end the film.

Happily, Kotlyarenko doesn't lock this movie's visual approach into a single format, a la those recent thrillers that play out entirely on a laptop screen. The pic's frame is frequently bifurcated, with one square-shaped POV shot sitting next to a vertical phone video. Most of the time, the latter features a constant scroll of comments in its lower half, in which the anonymous goons watching the action throw shade, celebrate what pleases them or knowingly claim that everything we're seeing is fake. For those of us who don't spend time consuming this kind of thing, the endless barrage of comments can be more upsetting than any of Kurt's splattery killings.

But it's a fine example of a mini-genre we've seen before and will surely see more of soon. ('Gramsploitation? Twitsploitation?) To the extent that it works, much credit goes to Keery, for finding the real human need inside this twentysomething cipher. Critical points about social-media addiction are made explicit, probably needlessly, toward the picture's end. But Kurt's so far gone that even a moral lesson he's able to digest will probably just point him in another very wrong direction.

Production companies: Forest Hill Entertainment, Superbloom
Cast: Joe Keery, Sasheer Zamata, David Arquette, Kyle Mooney, Mischa Barton, Josh Ovalle
Director: Eugene Kotlyarenko
Screenwriters: Gene McHugh, Eugene Kotlyarenko
Producers: Matthew Budman, Sumaiya Kaveh, John Lang, Eugene Kotlyarenko
Executive producers: Drake, Adel "Future" Nur, Anthony Gonzales, Alex Hughes
Director of photography: Jeff Leeds Cohn
Production designer: Carlos Laszlo
Costume designer: Natasha Newman-Thomas
Editor: Benjamin Moses Smith
Casting director: Rebecca Dealy
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (NEXT)
Sales: Mark Ankner, Will Maxfield, Endeavor Content

92 minutes