We often speak of “comfort viewing” movies and shows — relatively light, familiar, tension-free material, perfect for late-night, curl-up-on-the-sofa viewing. (This week’s Apple TV+ series “Ted Lasso” would be a classic example.) On the opposite end of the spectrum we find the dizzying and unnerving and kinetic and deeply disturbing “Spree,” which plays like a social media version of “American Psycho” with bloody sprinklings of “Taxi Driver,” “The King of Comedy” and “Joker” on the side.
RLJE Films presents a film directed by Eugene Kotlyarenko and written by Kotlyarenko and Gene McHugh. No MPAA rating. Running time: 92 minutes. Opens Thursday at local theaters and Friday on demand.
Just as the “Unfriended” horror movies are told almost entirely via laptop screencasts, “Spree” is essentially an unbroken series of livestreams, primarily told from the point of view of one Kurt Kuncle (Joe Keery from “Stranger Things,” doing some of his best work), a lonely and desperately ambitious YouTube/Snapchat/Instagram/FacebookLive/TikTok wannabe who chronicles his adventures as a ride-share driver through a series of GoPro-type cameras mounted throughout the vehicle. Watching the film is like checking out Kurt’s feed, except we can’t add to the constant stream of comments scrolling across the screen. (As Kurt’s antics become ever more violent and criminal, his following increases, with some urging him to keep pushing the envelope, while others claim it’s all just “fake news”’ — a series of staged events with props, actors and phony blood.)
Kurt is obsessed with the YouTube superstar Bobby BaseCamp (Joshua Orvalle), a vainglorious jerk who has become rich and famous through his own viral stunts and can make you an instant star merely by liking and endorsing your “work.” When Kurt announces his intentions to poison and kill his passengers and record the murders in real time and then actually follows through on the threat, BobbyBaseCamp remains unimpressed and unconvinced — until the two of them meet face to face. (Even then, the ever-growing audience is filled with skeptics ripping Kurt and Bobby for supposedly concocting a make-believe stunt.)
Director and co-writer Eugene Kotlyarenko does a deep dive into dark humor as the body count piles up and Kurt stalks a smart and edgy stand-up comedian named Jessie Adams (Sasheer Zamata). He doesn’t want to kill Jessie; he wants to make an impression on her — and his efforts to do so are in some ways nearly as creepy and chilling as the killings he’s cheerfully carrying out.
Just about every aspect of “Spree” has a layered meaning, including the title itself, as Spree is the name of the ride-share company for which Kurt drives, and he goes on one horrific killing spree. Every frame of the film is bursting with sensory overload information, from the shaky, hand-held camera angles to the constant scrolling of viewer messages to the occasional use of split screens. Kurt sometimes plays to the camera like he’s a cast member on “The Office” or “Parks & Rec,” and we can’t help but laugh some of the over-the-top antics even as we cringe. The violence in “Spree” is visceral and shocking — and many in the “audience” watching the deadly proceedings on their smart phones and tablets are either disbelieving or utterly numb to the blurred lines between reality and entertainment. Maybe what they’re watching is real; maybe it’s all a hoax. Either way, it’s only a matter of time before they’re going to turn their attention to the Next New Thing.