Fame: It’s A Numbers Game — A Review of Spree (2020)

28 November 2020

Spree’s central thesis is that we are all desperate to be seen. Whether by our parents, friends or random strangers on the internet, we want the validation and acknowledgment of others. This incredibly human trait pivots towards the horrific in Spree, a splattery thriller for the digital age, directed by Eugene Kotlyarenko and executive-produced by Drake.

Joe Keery (Stranger Things) plays Kurt Kunkle, a young man who drives for an Uber stand-in called Spree but harbours an insatiable desire for a social media empire. Kurt tricks out his car with a multitude of cameras, intent on livestreaming himself and his passengers, teasing a practice he calls #TheLesson. Soon its clear his approach to fame bears a closer resemblance to infamy, and his bloody murder spree (see what they did there?) takes him from open house auctions to strip clubs across Los Angeles.

The film’s integration of familiar social media visuals is a rare success story for the medium; too often on-screen depictions of texting or Instagram-posting can feel clunky and dated. Using vertical video to mimic a smart phone’s screen, as well as the frequent scrolling of Kurt’s stream’s live chat demonstrate the film’s commitment to making the online audience feel real, adding to the stakes as Kurt’s numbers – both kills and subscribers – climb. While some have bemoaned the trend of representing social media interface onscreen, I find it reflective of a genuine understanding of how we see others, so often mediated by corporate branding, pop-ups and filters. Some viewers will certainly dislike the turn away from a simple ‘ping’ sound effect signalling online interaction. I would, however, argue this film’s heavy use of social media visuals supports its chaotic depiction of contemporary life, rather than distracts from it.

The film’s strongest commentary comes through its focus on the particular tenor of men’s desperation for viral fame. Often young women are centred in narratives about social media – their vacuousness, their fake faces or bodies are pointed out for ridicule or pity. In Spree, Kurt’s hunger for an audience is uniquely reflective of a kind of toxic masculinity that calls to mind the –  at times foolish, at others deeply harmful –  antics of male social media stars like pewdiepie, onision and the Paul brothers. Kurt can seem extreme, but he’s no idle speculation of a future darkness in which young men might be consumed – his actions, spurred by a desire for internet validation, feel very real, and very current. Logan Paul’s 2017 scandal, involving his filming the body of man who died by suicide in a Japanese forest, would not itself be out of place in a horror film. Pushed to heighten the drama and spectacle of everyday life for a baying crowd of pre-teen fans, Paul’s desire for content at any cost reflects a disconnect between real life empathy and decency and the sense of invincibility internet fame affords.

A counterpoint to Kurt and the other male characters of the film, Jessie Adams is a woman aware of the potential destruction her social media fame might befall her. A stand-up comedian turned Instagram star, Jessie’s authenticity is what draws her audience to her. She’s a funny, talented woman who has found some success online. She is everything Kurt, and his friend Bobby, who is famous for filming himself pranking homeless people (and played by ex-Viner Josh Ovalle aka Jared, 19, who never fucking learned how to read), are not. As Jessie’s story intertwines with Kurt’s throughout the night, the film draws stark contrasts between her life and his. Played by SNL veteran Sasheer Zamata in a grounded and unfussy portrayal that offset’s Kurt’s manic energy brilliantly, Jessie is a refreshingly three-dimensional take on the horror heroine.

The film’s message is made slightly murky by the inclusion of real social media stars playing versions of themselves; Mischa Barton, Frankie Grande (Ariana’s brother) and ex-Vanderpump Rules reality star Lala Kent make a cameo as tipsy friends looking for something exciting to post online. This inclusion veers the film closer to the cliched, preachy cautionary tales about seeking social media validation we’re so used to and likely, sick of.

Spree is unabashedly bleak, reflecting back at its audience our desire for splashy, trashy and slash-y entertainment. It’s perhaps not the parable for our times some had hoped it would be, but the film is not without something to say. Its unflinching portrayal of a man obsessed with viral fame illustrates the poisonous potential of the social media era, without inferring it’s all our fault for wanting to be seen.

Spree is available to rent November 25 via iTunes, Youtube Movies, Fetch, Microsoft Store & Google Play.

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