Eugene Koltyarenko’s “Spree,” a thriller about rideshare driver Kurt Kunkle (Joe Keery), whose quest for live-stream viewers takes on an increasingly sociopathic bent, hybridizes two strains of movies born of the Internet age. The film is pitched between a “screenlife” movie like “Unfriended” or “Searching” and a small but mighty canon of emerging dark comedies about “extremely online” sociopaths that includes “Ingrid Goes West” and “Assassination Nation.”
In aesthetic terms, Koltyarenko’s film most resembles a screenlife movie where the action unfolds entirely within the frame of a digital device. Though, rather than view the confines of the screen as his limitation, he does something craftier by embedding the content of phone screens throughout. Koltyarenko presaged this style in his debut, “Wobble Palace,” a satirical and sociological comedy about two narcissistic millennial progressives too consumed with the action inside their phones to notice the oblivion of Donald Trump’s election on the immediate horizon. There’s barely a moment where the action on a phone in “Wobble Palace” doesn’t spill over and live alongside images of reality, a visual style Koltyarenko pushes even further in his latest feature.
The underlying fallacy of screenlife movies is their view of the online realm as something separate but equal to the real world. “Extremely online” movies like “Spree” realize that the two are now inextricably linked, a fusion they portray with an undeniably bleak nihilism. The action that takes place within the omnipresent screen is not a separate location from reality but one that lives right alongside it, influencing it – and even superseding it – in frightening ways. The film echoes this down to the foundations of the narrative: Kurt might be participating in the gig economy by driving for the rideshare service Spree, but this is just a front for his simultaneous play in the attention economy he’s trying to command by going on a live-streamed violent spree.
This paradigm shift of bridging the two worlds is an important one to observe as it’s the only way to make sense of a character like Kurt, who does not respond to offline accountability measures like shame, guilt, or legality. Koltyarenko is not exactly holding his cards close to the chest in “Spree.” All it takes is one rider for us to learn that Kurt is not just a loner desperate for attention but a deeply depraved and dangerous individual. He’s exaggerated in many ways, sure, but everything he says or does is merely an expression of sentiments festering in the darkest corners of the web. The film doesn’t bother with teasing either how he was radicalized or how he can be deprogrammed. By the time anyone can ask those questions, it’s too late. The only mitigation strategy is harm reduction once he’s begun his joyride and the content exists for depraved Internet users to devour.
The film’s first setup is clever: a buttoned-up white supremacist is heading to spew garbage somewhere, seeming to set up an extreme against which Kurt could never quite reach. Wrong. The white supremacist measures himself against a vile set of principles, but the value system that circumscribes his behavior makes for a fixed point to measure himself against. People who wish to counter that ideology can pinpoint and make the case against it. Kurt chases after the elusive like and the fickle attention span of the online viewer he keeps stealing a glance to acknowledge, two modern equivalents of Moloch unsatisfied by even human sacrifice. And, as the film will show soon enough, online strains of white supremacy and misogyny clearly played some part in forming Kurt’s outlook even if he might not openly profess them as motivations for his behavior.
Most radically, “Spree” rejects any entry point for empathy or understanding into Kurt. He’s impossible to latch onto, and Koltyarenko makes an emotional entry point for Kurt impossible to find. Keery’s slimy incarnation of a slippery character further complicates the picture, too, playing on our innate inclinations to try and find avenues of redemption for a flawed protagonist. If the film has any major flaw, it’s in bending the plausibility of the characters like Sasheer Zamata’s Jessie and scenarios around Kurt to extend him that same benefit of the doubt. But as the film gains velocity and starts racking up a body count, the growing comments section egging Kurt on becomes more real, anyways – at least to him. “Spree” visualizes this feedback loop between the online and offline worlds in a chilling way that no other film has quite understood.
This gets to the core conundrum highlighted by “Spree” – fighting menaces like Kurt is, in part, legitimizing them. Koltyarenko acknowledges there is no good option in eradicating online radicals. Ignoring the Kurt Kunkles of the world is to let their toxicity pollute the world, specifically targeting the marginalized. But delivering the death blow is to build the trolls’ case for martyrdom – and thus provide the validation they need to justify their worldview, continuing the cycle indefinitely. To depict trolling is to perpetuate trolling, a paradox with which he leaves the audience to wrestle.
“Spree” illuminates this frightening conundrum not to make the audience feel like they’ve learned a little more about a capital-I “Issue.” It’s to lock our eyes on a view of the abyss, force us to stare into the dark heart of the web, and implicate both our spectatorship as well as our tacit participation. Koltyarenko serves a bitter pill for viewers of his film, many of whom will likely see themselves as part of the solution to the problem of online radicalization by attempting to grapple with it in this film. The viewers are actually more part of the problem by tuning into Kurt’s stream in the first place. [B+]
“Spree” arrives in select theaters and VOD on August 14.