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'Spree' Review: A not-so-killer Uber nightmare

Eugene Kotlyarenko’s 'Spree' is a whimpering condemnation of online cultures that uses ridesharing as a deadly tool.

Joe Keery in Spree.
(Image: © RLJE Films)

Our Verdict

Spree has trouble balancing its bleak-as-ever narrative with more naive and "cheerful" by comparison tonal ambivalence.

For

  • 🚘 Relevant internet horror
  • 🚘 Keery nails "awkward"

Against

  • 🚘 Asleep at the wheel
  • 🚘 Tonally imbalanced

Eugene Kotlyarenko’s Spree dares to satirize the ultimate evils of an unregulated internet. How social media distorts reality into a comparison’s game of likes, subscribers, and cult-adjacent followings. It’s also a commentary on how we’ve normalized behaviors, such as ridesharing, that ignore age-old warnings like “don’t get in cars with strangers.” Forgotten wisdom thanks to the comforts of convenience (much like how The Rental is an Airbnb horror story). Kotlyarenko’s aim is at visible, sucky aspects of online culture, which is an empty assessment that grows inescapably tedious due to the found-footage nature of this live-streaming (live-screaming?) murder spree. Appropriately, just like most interactions on the internet.

Joe Keery stars as self-proclaimed influencer Kurt Kunkle, vlogger at @KurtsWorld96, who can barely capture double-digit watchers on anything he posts. Kurt is awkward, unpopular, and lacks the on-camera charisma of streaming stars like @BobbyBaseCamp. That’s until Kurt hatches a plan for viral infamy he dubs “#TheLesson.” Kurt installs multiple streaming cameras in his car, which he uses daily as a Spree driver. His passengers all assume the cameras are for protection, but Kurt’s masterplan does not have anyone’s best interests in mind but his own. You can’t break the internet without a few corpses in your trunk!

The idea of a live-documented killing “Spree” is, tragically, based on actual events. Mass murderers who publicly post on Facebook or Instagram, whether that be lead-up preparation or in-action violence. Kotlyarenko and co-writer Gene McHugh have as much to say about the “herofication” of attention-seeking criminals as they do fame-blinding motivations. Spree dials into the root of all evils - internet popularity as a serotonin boost that masquerades as self-fulfillment - while criticizing those online voyeurs who support, hate-watch, and encourage immoral behavior like cyber vultures. It’s necessary commentary, acted-on with an unfiltered gaze.

The issue is, Kotlyarenko’s ability to recreate the internet’s worst personalities on-screen becomes more of a parody than severe condemnation, and an unfunny one, despite darkly comedic intentions.

Keery is the epitome of sad-sad vlogger culture. Not to stereotype, but greasy hair, hopelessly awkward, and someone who forces content that’s cringe-worthy based on the mundane embarrassment that limits each video. Now imagine being stuck in a car with said “personality,” as his ride-along victims sip toxic water bottles and are dispatched in increasingly vicious ways when @BobbyBaseCamp starts calling Kurt’s content “stale.” Commenters push a troubled, deranged, isolated loner towards certain death, as onlookers send donations with instructions while watching the chaos from afar (a modern choose-your-own-adventure with real stakes). These nameless avatars never stop laughing, convincing themselves it’s just a prank video as Kurt turns into a meme sensation. 

Kotlyarenko embraces the internet model we’re addicted to and deserve, where stammering, loser-types who crave validation are devoured by their commitment to doing whatever it takes. Keery sells every “follow back” plea and desperate monologue to a crowd of none. What’s grating is the film’s structure, tone, and weak impact.

Every rider who hops into Kurt’s always-filming sedan is an exaggeration of another type of online persona. The "alpha" white supremacist, the aggressively sexist womanizer, the rich kids who non-stop post extravagant parties and experiences (oh hello Mischa Barton cameo). Characters who immediately offer their worst qualities, which I’m sure Uber drivers can share similar stories about, are all too perfect for Kurt’s “lesson.” Until we meet comedian Jessie Adams (Sasheer Zamata), who is precisely the type of influencer Kurt sees as a dream collaborative partner. Then Spree goes from a mass murder flick to a stalk-and-kidnap scenario, to no benefit. Jessie’s “All eyes on me” catchphrase is as much a declaration of importance as it is a damning message that’s undone by the film’s final frames.

Alas, Spree is, at best, a collection of “WTF” moments that aren’t very “WTF” worthy. You’ll get your deaths, but with minimal payoff as actors are either finished off-camera or fail to deliver what might be considered an authentic performance. Characters make ridiculous decisions like allowing a suspect chauffeur to hijack their night, take them to a horror-movie-backdrop junkyard for “kicks,” and put their lives in danger for a few laughs (or, like Kyle Mooney, live-stream themselves as pitiful pickup artists with skeevy overtones). 

The live-streaming atmosphere that imprisons us within Kurt’s #blessed mindset is a mood destroyer. He blasts his lame house music mixtapes (inspired by David Arquette, playing his father “DJ KrissMass”), and his actions become more inconsequentially erratic. Oh yeah, and police involvement? I guess it’s supposed to be a commentary on how so few viewers tune in, but there’s never any suspense by lawful interaction even when the police do get involved. Also, what even is “#TheLesson” beyond a muddied excuse for a techno-frustrated thesis?!

Spree is thematically relevant, tonally amiss, and inexcusably dull. These descriptors are a byproduct of “Kurt’s World,” which haplessly juxtaposes Kurt’s giddiness and elation against the atrocities now on video. Intentions are clear, but execution devalues terror and tension as Joe Keery cycles through every performative mild-mannered YouTuber cliché on record. It’s a film that demands we smash our phones to smithereens, but then back-peddles to nullify itself in an admission that we’ll never sever our virtual ties, so what’s the point? Its bleakness should be never ending, yet the film climaxes without raising much of a pulse. Another example of socially-questioning cinema that wants to speak so loudly, but is defined by its most timid attributes.

Spree will be available to rent August 14th.