Generally, the person more desperate than the person you can think of is whoever seeks internet attention. With the times so infatuated with metrics, online fame becomes more and more a direct line to the access-following-wealth trifecta, with personalities willing to bend all sorts of limits to get it — for example, swimming in toxic pools. Twenty quid that they will trade essential goods for likes during the apocalypse.
That trio is something the main subject of Spree, Kurt Kuncle (Joe Keery), has been working toward — for almost 10 years now, according to a title card in the Comic Sans font. So far so bad for him, per another title card, as viewers’ engagement with his content is non-existent. That is bound to change, though, since he has come up with a new series called “The Lesson,” where it’s like (American gameshow) CA$H CAB but the prize is your death and not dough (Kurt’s day job is a driver for the rideshare company that also shares the film’s title). Someone is really taking their work ethic to the next level — an observation that has a sliver of humor to it when you find out that one of Spree’s producers has ties to a 2016 hit jam with the lyrics “When you gonna learn learn learn learn learn?”
In a leap, arguably, as huge as going from anonymous to Twitter virality or notoriety, Keery sheds his charming ice-cream-parlor fatherly self to be a person who thinks Online Life is the only life. A warped thought, and one that the actor in his first leading performance displays with clarity and thankfully without the hamminess. The default line of thinking behind playing Kurt would be to play it as an exaggeration, yet Keery avoids it; you’ll find that there is, or there still is, a human behind the profile. Sometimes just by eyesight or line delivery he makes Kurt’s desperation and demented workings to foment an online presence apparent, which is ideal since the “screenlife” backbone of Spree doesn’t offer a lot of space, literal and otherwise, for actors to use all of their tools. The film, then, is a test for Keery because that space will stay limited throughout, even if the frame does shift between one of the six cameras in Kurt’s car or split when another crucial stream goes live. And in that sense, he passes.
Similarly, yet not as glowing, is the crafting of Spree’s story from writers Eugene Kotlyarenko (who also directs) and Gene McHugh. Aside from the on-off weaving of trendy internet terms into dialogues, they don’t see Kurt’s bloody made-to-viral run as anything more than that — but at the same time show traces that they do. Since most of Kurt’s passengers are depicted as leaders of unsavory lives — white supremacist (Linas Phillips), vapid realtor (Jessalyn Gilsig), rude brah (John DeLuca) and sex-tape-famous DJ uNo (Sunny Kim, here speaking in a degrading and cartoony form of Korean-accented English) — having them as victims of “The Lesson” could have strengthened a Kurt-oriented argument that his actions deserve the views because it’s vigilantism-like. Missed is the opportunity to amplify this point via the well-designed comments section beneath the livestreams, which perfectly copies the real-life counterpart’s toxicity, meme-heaviness and deliberate chaos, or via the celebrity comic character Jessie Adams (Sasheer Zamata), who turns out to be an undercooked version of what the synopsis describes as Kurt’s foil. In ditching the possible subtext, Kotlyarenko reveals his main objective: to capture the mayhem that Kurt created. It is intermittently entertaining, to be frank — if always borderline silly because of Maison Ware and James Ferraro’s intrusive score — and is always traceable to the need to be superior to people online and offline — himself, Jessie, the kid he used to babysit who’s now an influencer (Joshua Ovalle, a bona fide online presence) and, especially, the father he considers lame (David Arquette in a “oh-you’re-here-too” role).
Perhaps it’s the concept of a taxi ride morphing into a murder trip, or the Los Angeles sights, but watching Spree is almost like revisiting Collateral. Only in flashes, of course, as Kurt is both the driver and the one leaving bloody trails all over town. That also reflects what Kotlyarenko’s film is, a reduction as well as a simplification of what it could say about the subject matter, not unlike an influencer who equates “black square” with “Black allyship,” but it’s not all a waste thanks to a believably daft performance from Keery.
Directed by: Eugene Kotlyarenko
Written by: Eugene Kotlyarenko, Gene McHugh
Cast: Joe Keery, Sasheer Zamata, David Arquette