Welcome to Kurt’s World, where social media engagement matters more than life itself. The new dark comedy SPREE follows rideshare driver and self-described influencer/content creator Kurt Kunkel (Joe Keery) as he embarks on a manic, bloody quest to go viral. #TheLesson, as he calls his demented plan, involves murdering his rideshare clients and streaming the carnage so that his views can finally hit double digits. Though both the pacing and the tone of the film are uneven, SPREE features a fantastic performance from the incredibly talented Keery and makes some valid points about the deleterious nature of social media that will hit uncomfortably close to home for anyone who has ever worried about their follower count.

SPREE is far from subtle. Its title refers to Spree, the rideshare company for which Kurt works, and to his murder spree, which is an oddly bloodless mixture of maulings, poisonings, and driller killer attacks. For much of the movie, Kurt drives around picking up new riders to kill, constantly addressing one of the half dozen cameras he has set up in his car (which is usually more than the number of people watching his stream). At one point, he picks up a woman named Jessie Adams (Sasheer Zamata) who turns out to be a rising comedy star with a huge social media following. Kurt is instantly obsessed, pleading with her to follow his account (“I always follow back”) and asking for tips on how to grow his audience. Disturbed by a fellow passenger’s sexual harassment and by Kurt’s desperate attempts to glom onto her fame, Jessie asks to be dropped off on the side of the road so she can call another driver.

The film meanders a bit from here, as Kurt’s unhinged “lesson” careens between a visit to an empty strip club to beg for a shout-out from a famous DJ and a confrontation with his sole viewer, Bobby (Josh Ovalle). Bobby is Kurt’s former babysitting charge who now makes a living off his hugely popular videos, which seem to involve stealing people’s phones and staging insultingly “inspirational” stories involving homeless people. At every turn, SPREE emphasizes just how inane social media is. Bobby’s videos are manipulative and annoying, and Jessie’s Instagram stories are boring but calculated to be as charming as possible, showing her playing with a group of dogs and chatting with her adorable grandmother (Reatha Grey). Kurt’s pathological frustration mounts as he tries to figure out why some people get the validation and endorphin rush of thousands of likes on their posts while he struggles to break out of single digits.

Joe Keery as Kurt Kunkle in the thriller SPREE, an RLJE Films release | Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.

SPREE gets even more on the nose when Kurt decides to visit Jessie at her stand-up special. Jessie’s set turns into a rant about the evils of social media and how pathetic Kurt is for placing so much stock in engagement statistics that ultimately mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. The whole film is depicted through the social media lens: the viewer sees what Kurt’s followers see, including comments and emojis left by other people watching the stream, and as Kurt’s numbers grow throughout the night he starts to get requests and comments on his actions. Kurt’s viewers mock him as Jessie talks about how pitiful he is, with some of them telling him to kill her and others telling him to kill himself. #TheLesson spirals further out of control, culminating in a bloody finale that jams the film’s cynical message down the viewer’s throat: social media is an inescapable abomination that preys on our insecurities, loneliness, and worst impulses in a never-ending search for online clout.

Keery carries the film, turning in an incredible performance that deftly alternates between affable loser and chilling psychopath. It’s shocking to see Stranger Things‘ Steve Harrington as a terrifying killer, but when Keery wants to, he can make a viewer’s blood run cold. In a hilariously sad early sequence that sees Kurt addressing the camera on the side of the road, he has to pause frequently to let cars pass so that his sounds don’t interfere with his audio. Keery’s timing is fantastic, as his deluded and enthusiastic Kurt patiently watches the cars pass before turning to the camera and launching right back into his interrupted speech about how he’s going to revolutionize social media. When Jessie and Kurt have a physical altercation at the end of the film, Keery’s delivery of the line, “Why are you doing this, Jessie? We could have been a power couple!” is perfection. Kurt is heartbreaking, horrifying, and hilarious in equal measure; Keery does a far better job than the movie surrounding him does of nailing both the horror and the comedy of this morbid satire.

The disjointed narrative is explained by a final “twist” that lands like a punch to the gut and implicates the viewer in the horrors that they’ve just witnessed. It doesn’t account for the wildly uneven nature of the film, though, nor does it add any profundity to it. SPREE is a pointed indictment of social media obsession, but it is often as shallow as the influencers it criticizes. Still, Joe Keery makes this a film worth watching. His fascinating performance takes viewers on a wild ride through the sad and ugly world of social media stardom and proves that he’s a compelling actor who makes interesting choices and has plenty of range left to explore. A timely film that relies mostly on its lead’s talent and charism, SPREE won’t make you delete all your accounts, but it will make you hate yourself a little bit for staying logged in.

SPREE will arrive in theaters, On Demand and Digital August 14, 2020.

Jessica Scott
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