Joe Keery stars as Kurt Kunkle in 'Spree.' Photo courtesy of RLJE films.

'Spree' is killer satire for the social media age

Social media works its poison on all of us in various ways. But the line between what’s harmless and toxic can be fuzzy. When does mindless scrolling become an addictive dopamine drip? At what point does looking up your ex out of curiosity snowball into internet stalking strangers from your past? When filmmaker Eugene Kotlyarenko started concepting his slasher-comedy movie Spree, about a rideshare driver who decides to murder his passengers to gain a following, he was particularly fascinated by people who suck at social media.

“One of the promises of social media is that you are at the center of an important narrative of your own creation,” Kotlyarenko told Mic. But if nobody is paying attention, the internet can be a really lonely place. Binge watching vlogs posted by people with non-existent followings, as Spree’s cast and creative team did to prepare, reveals “this desperation and cringey-ness at the heart of the attention economy that we all participate in,” Kotlyarenko noted.

The cringe-factor is on full display in Spree from the first chipper, “What’s up, guys?” uttered by its psychopathic main character, Kurt Kunkle (Joe Keery), who’s hell-bent on becoming an influencer — whatever the cost. He’s been “posting content in obscurity” for a decade, filming vlogs about how to amass a following, when his own likes and views rarely hit double digits. A kid he used to babysit is now a famous YouTube prankster, but Kurt can’t catch a break. So he schemes up a surefire way to achieve online infamy: murdering his rideshare passengers and livestreaming their grisly deaths to gain a following. Kurt dubs his nefarious plan #TheLesson.

“Kurt Kunkel, on a basic level, is a walking embodiment of thirstiness, and he does, in a way, represent the majority of people who use social media,” Kotlyarenko told Mic. He shot the majority of the film on iPhones and dash cams set up in the car with Kurt and his passengers, including comedian Jessie Adams (Sasheer Zamata) and his aging DJ dad (David Arquette). The resulting footage, often overlaid with an endless scroll of “real-time” comments reacting to #TheLesson, makes Spree a singularly of-our-time viewing experience that takes inspiration from and skewers social media in equal measure.

“To me, it's really obvious the ways [social media is] shifting our value system and culture and changing how we understand our own identity and our interactions with other people,” Kotlyarenko said. “Unless we feel guilty or weird about something we've done, we generally don't reflect on how these platforms work and how these apps, you know, manipulate us.”

Spree is exaggerated, over-the-top satire. Kurt’s increasingly outlandish kills and Keery’s maniacally upbeat hosting through the bloodbath helps the film toe the line between campy comedy and disturbing slasher flick. What makes Spree undeniably unsettling is how insightfully it mirrors real-world terrors, like racism, misogyny, the nefarious allure of fame, and the epidemic of mass violence in the US. “We want you to laugh, but we also want you to think,” Zamata noted.

Kotlyarenko was a little more direct: “The movie is definitely punching at and brutally savaging white, male mass murderers in America who would use violence as a shortcut to fame,” he said. “They deserve to be taken down many pegs.” While Spree is fictional, Kurt’s rampage resembles real-life incidents. On February 20, 2016, Uber driver Jason Dalton terrorized residents of Kalamazoo, Michigan, as he drove around the city shooting eight victims while picking up and dropping off passengers between killings.

What art can do that politicians and journalists can’t, the director noted, is make fun of people who think violence is a shortcut to infamy. “I didn't want to make Kurt someone that anyone would think is cool,” Kotlyarenko said. “We have to put out the image that this is extremely uncool. And if you're doing this, your desperation is transparent.”

Sasheer Zamata stars as Jessie Adams in 'Spree.' Photo courtesy of RLJE films.

Speaking of extremely uncool, Kurt spends much of Spree targeting Zamata’s character, Jessie. She’s an Instagram-famous comedian he happens to pick up as a passenger, and she represents everything he’s not. (Not a spoiler, but Jessie reevaluates her own relationship with social media over the course of the film, partly spurred by her scary rideshare encounter.) Kurt becomes obsessed with leveraging her following to boost his own infamy. But watching a psychopathic white guy do everything in his power to kill a Black woman dredged up a lot of real-world anger and anxiety. (Semi-spoiler: in the end, Jessie gives Kurt what’s coming to him.)

“It would be a scary situation for anybody, but I do think it adds another layer, because Kurt's personhood has historically been at a higher status than mine,” Zamata mused. “And to see him try to basically steal from me — he's trying to murder me in front of these cameras and steal my audience. So it's such a repeat of history, you know? He thinks he’s entitled to this. It's just so interesting to see it so literally, where he's just like, ‘I'm going to eliminate you and replace you.’ And, uh, that’s very real.”

Spree weaves reality and fantasy together deftly, and one of the most entertaining ways the movie dances with the real world is through cameos by actually-famous influencers like Mischa Barton, Lala Kent, and Frankie Grande. Kotlyarenko said their inclusion was an intentional way to “up the what-the-fuck factor” in the world of the film — to make the audience aware of their own clout-chasing instincts. The characters of Spree have also come alive on real social platforms — ironically, the real @kurtsworld96 Instagram account has more than 61,000 followers, a number that’d probably thrill the fictional Kurt to no end.

Spree is kind of a hard movie to watch — there’s a lot of blood and gore, if you’re sensitive to those things, and the scroll of comments makes watching the film an active experience. But the uncomfortable aspects of Spree are important to absorb, Kotlyarenko noted. "Film can go to places where the quote-unquote more 'responsible' elements of society can't. There's value to satire and critique done in an entertaining way, you know?"

Spree opens in select drive-ins, theaters, and on demand August 14th.