Warning: Massive spoilers below.
“This is such a good troll,” writes a spectator observing comedian Jessie Adams’s livestream. That’s a staple comment in the youthful online community of today’s Internet, met with a mutual understanding of the idea of ‘trolling’ by those who read it. The likely fictitious user, @ZucchiniWeeny, highlights Jessie’s “good troll” just as she drives not-quite-famous YouTuber and rideshare driver Kurt Kunkle’s car, the inarguable central location of Spree, into Kurt himself. Pinned between the car and a wall, Kurt is sputtering and flailing, while Sasheer Zamata’s effortlessly cool comedian presses down on the accelerator. It’s a reasonably grisly affair, climaxing with a belch of blood by Kurt on to the dashboard – the dashboard on which a camera has been locked down (by Kurt) as part of a sinister “master plan,” so we see the blood and the guts right in front of us – and his body going limp. “This is such a good troll” writes @ZucchiniWeeny.
What, exactly, is Spree attempting to say about Internet culture, desensitization of violence, obsession and corruption? That we as a society are too far gone to be traumatized? That the power (and subsequent pressures) of Internet stardom are too much to handle? After thinking it over, I can’t really tell what Eugene Kotlyarenko, the director and co-writer of Spree (which doubles as the name of the rideshare app in the film), is trying to say, rather offering a muddled blanket statement simply saying “the Internet can be a bad place.” Mr. Kotlyarenko’s script, written with little-known artist Gene McHugh (whose unusual, attracting personal work, found here, is quite worth a look), would operate at a much more ferocious, insightful manner were Spree a thirty-minute short film. Stretched to 92, these ideas grow repetitive, and Joe Keery’s inventive dreamer is given a painfully unnecessary backstory – divorced parents, including a junkie dad played by David Arquette – ballooning Spree to its quick runtime. Perhaps Spree, the story of a not-so-famous YouTuber and his quest to develop a fandom by committing acts of murder on unsuspecting patrons, would operate more efficiently as a short film seeped in darkness, where Mr. Kotlyarenko can dump the yucks in favor of moments of bleak psychopathy a la Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Alas, Spree gets lost up its own tail pipe, saying the same thing (without ever really saying it) every twenty minutes, and utilizing a distracting, crowd-pleasing element of dark comedy.
Mr. Keery’s performance, which arguably saves Spree from over-the-top goofiness, is a unique concoction of hapless innocence and the exact type of psychopathy embodied by Jake Gyllenhaal in the similar Los Angeles crime thriller of 2014, Nightcrawler. Whether in his hideous blue shirt or his hideous green sweatshirt – kudos to costuming, choosing repelling, off-putting outfits in which Kurt is immeasurably confident – Kurt’s character always has a plan, methodical by nature, leaving the viewer with a keen trust in their surrogate. Is Kurt completing this plan because it’s in his heart, or because he wants to impress strangers on the Internet? The answer lies in Mr. Keery’s face, bright and maybe too smiley, impassioned and confident. His face perpetually acts as an anchor, something for the viewer to return to when the mishmash of vertical livestreams and/or the car’s camera footage overwhelms the screen.
At times, Mr. Kotlyarenko places two or three dueling cameras on the screen simultaneously, nearly becoming erratic and hard to decipher. Meanwhile, there are some certain questions I have about the cameras, like: If the viewer is seeing all of the footage (all of the movie) from the eyes and the cameras set up by Kurt, plus other livestreams by Jessie or Kurt’s YouTuber-in-crime Bobby, how are we able to see the security footage – a wide shot – of the gas station where Kurt stops? How about the camera by Sepulveda Blvd when Kurt flips his car over the homeless? Spree’s clever premise (and its ambition) is entirely admirable, but Mr. Kotlyarenko must have an understanding of what the viewer can/can’t see. There can’t be a cop-out wide shot to cut to unless a character manually manipulates the camera, like with Kurt’s car set-up or livestream.
Kurt driving through this crowd of homeless people, yelling “the police can’t stop [him], Dad can’t stop [him], the homeless can’t stop [him]” is clearly, bluntly indicative of his power complex developed over time. Having escaped the police after a disastrous affair, thrilled to keep his master plan – “the lesson” – intact, Kurt screams and cheers; he’s the king of the world. All the while, Kurt is literally plowing into homeless people and tents under the interstate on Sepulveda Blvd. By this point, the Kurt we knew during the flavorless opening montage of the film, this inquisitive, social butterfly, has become something of a malevolent psychopath. If only Mr. Kotlyarenko handled Kurt’s psychopathy like genuine psychopathy instead of positioning him as a comically insane fellow. (For the second time: This could have been a Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer for the modern age if done properly.) Spree’s faults run deep, in that this apparent statement on class and power – insisting that those who are well off, and those who are famous on the Internet, are better than anyone and everyone – fails to connect as a result of a redundant spewing of the same general idea and a mixing of genres that strip away the tension. Mr. Kotlyarenko’s piece works as a fashionably inventive take on the hallmark Los Angeles crime story, but the apathetic comedy-thriller presented isn’t all that funny, and isn’t all that thrilling. The director believes the Internet can be a sad, evil place. Instead of watching a movie about it, why not go play outside? Such a good troll. Lolz.