Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
When a real-life killer finds fame on a forum or a social network — a trend that’s become depressingly frequent in recent years — there are two common conclusions. The first is that social media is some kind of new, unprecedented evil, as if the Zodiac killer never crafted an elaborate brand strategy through local newspapers, or TV news never helped turn mass shooters into celebrities. The second is that modern web platforms simply produce their own distinct kinds of nightmares, ones that twist their wholesome promises of openness and trust.
Spree, a horror-comedy directed by Eugene Kotlyarenko, captures the latter with remarkable style. It uses an experimental blend of naturalistic filmmaking and footage from phone apps, following a man who wants desperately and pathetically to be noticed — even if that involves a mass murder campaign with a viral hashtag.
What’s the genre?
Spree’s plot is basically a Black Mirror episode, and its aesthetic blends found-footage techniques with the “screen film” style of movies like Searching and Unfriended. Most action is shot diegetically through GoPro and phone cameras, including a lot of Periscope-esque vertical video overlaid with audience reactions.
Tonally, it’s a sometimes queasy mix of satire and slasher film, carried by an over-the-top performance from Stranger Things star Joe Keery. The plot isn’t based on true events, but it’s tied fairly realistically into the world of tech and social media, fictionalizing some controversies and referencing an actual mass murder by an Uber driver in 2016.
What’s it about?
A failed pseudo-Uber driver and internet content creator (Keery) decides to “go viral” by embarking on a livestreamed murder spree called #TheLesson. This is unbearably and intentionally cringeworthy.
Kurt (who introduces himself as “KurtsWorld96”) is a social media strategy guide made flesh. He’s a self-described content creator who produces hours of bad electronic music and introspective videos that nobody watches. His idea of a conversation-starter is “how did you grow your following?”, and his face is set permanently in a manic grin. As a driver for the ride-hailing app Spree, he obsessively asks riders to tag him on Instagram and swears that he always follows back.
#TheLesson, an elaborate scheme to kill Spree users, is Kurt’s final attempt to grow his audience. But a depressingly mediocre streamer who murders people... is still just a depressingly mediocre streamer. So to his horror, nobody really cares or even believes the deaths are real. As Kurt goes to greater and greater lengths to impress viewers, he becomes fixated on a successful social media star named Jessie Adams (Sasheer Zamata), who has started to have her own misgivings about being famous online.
What’s it really about?
Spree is a savage dissection of digital social climbing. Kurt is at the bottom of the ladder, obviously. But as the film expands its focus to Jessie, we see the same dynamics play out at other levels of internet stardom. Characters engage with each other by carefully identifying their relative status, then trying to film or be filmed by the biggest star in the room — conveyed through some effective editing tricks, like scenes playing out across footage from several people’s phones at once.
This behavior looks a lot like old-fashioned power jockeying. But Spree emphasizes the specific pressure of social media’s instant feedback loop and hyper-quantification. Comments from fans pop up at the bottom of the screen, sometimes mocking the characters and sometimes egging them on. Instead of subjectively judging somebody’s influence, people rely on the merciless metrics of views and follower counts.
Spree also puts forward a bleakly amoral vision of the internet economy. Kurt’s politics are all monetization strategies — he’ll call out a white supremacist on his live murder stream because platforms don’t like racism, and he despises homeless people because they aren’t online enough. His hashtag, #TheLesson, evokes an aggrieved alt-right troll or an overzealous social justice crusade. But it’s actually a literal guide for getting famous, including an instructional video for a deadly craft project.
Jessie, meanwhile, is a black woman whose comedy calls out racism and misogyny. But in Spree, she’s stuck playing the same game as Kurt — any genuine idealism is quickly captured, repackaged, and posted online. The real-world internet culture wars still exist here, but they’re just opposing corners of one big content farm.
Is it good?
Keery pulls off the trick of being creepy, sad, and fun to watch even as he’s descending deeper and deeper into monstrosity. And the film leans hard into dark comedy rather than outright horror, which saves it from seeming like technophobic scaremongering or a “kids these days” moral panic. If you’re the kind of person who can laugh at slapstick murder vignettes, a lot of Spree works very well.
On the other hand, those vignettes eventually start feeling repetitive. Spree stalls out in the middle with some scenes that are fun on their own, but don’t add enough to the film’s central joke that social media fans are shallow and think everything is a prank. Kurt’s victims are usually as unpleasantly self-obsessed as he is, so with the exception of Jessie, it’s hard to get invested in their fates. And when Spree fully commits to the idea that Kurt’s murders are a microcosm of... *film gesticulates wildly at social media*, it doesn’t have enough time to make its case.
How can I actually watch it?
Spree is currently seeking distribution.