The era of the celebrity is dead. The influencer era has arrived. Fame and notoriety are entwined, with the rise of socialites such as the Kardashians and Jenners, or moments of global recognition through viral memes. With the advance of globalisation comes the expansion of an audience that many never had access to before, with the chance of going ‘viral’ enticing the typical young adult, unaware that once you log on, you can never log off. How far is too far when it comes to becoming an influencer? Kurt Kunkle is too far.
Spree follows Kurt (Joe Keery), as he attempts to establish himself as a prominent figure online, envious of the shadow cast by his former babysitting acquaintance Bobby aka 'BobbyBasecamp' (Joshua Orville.) Desperate for recognition, placing his entire self-worth on online worship, Kurt designs ‘#TheLesson’, and begins enacting his plan for social media virality over the course of one night, starting a killing spree in the pursuit of transcending the moniker of Kurt Kunkle, and eventually being consumed by his own parasitic persona.
It's immediately clear that director Eugene Kotlyarenko and co-writer Gene McHugh have done their research into realistic social media world-building – Kurt’s ‘Draw My Life’ is presented with a Youtube-esque design, and his bland username of ‘kurtsworld96’ displays a level of realism in the writing that is often woefully absent in other films portraying the online world. This attention to detail is noticed throughout, as eagle-eyed viewers will be able to spot little internet culture Easter eggs like the usernames of ‘lonelygirl15’ and 'Boxxy' in Kurt’s chat, and many others which I invite people to search for. The use of aesthetically familiar UI design throughout the film may seem like a small detail, but it makes all the difference – audiences are much more likely to buy into an Instagram Live-looking stream rather than some crudely named ‘iLive’ or other poorly titled copy. It’s refreshing to see our own world of social media reflected rather than a clear artificial smorgasbord of apps – the one exception being Kurt’s streaming app, LiveFly, which is likely because Twitch has enough controversy as it is right now.
Joe Keery is incredible as Kurt – his initial introduction coming across as a realistic and relatable character, nerdy and socially awkward with a desire to gain admiration and respect from others. We have all known people like this, and perhaps some of us have even been this way in the past. Keery adds little eccentricities to Kurt that embolden his nature – the slight stutter, his inability to maintain eye contact with the camera, the constant slight jittery movement. It’s this grounded, human reflection of social anxiety that allows for a more sinister contrast when Kurt begins ‘#TheLesson’ - it’s such an extreme personality shift from his introduction that something immediately feels off with own presentation of himself. Keery's acting separates Kurt from the persona of 'Kurt's World' through great contrasts in emotion, giving us insight into the disconnect within himself, and a lack of connection to the world around him, choosing instead to find a home within cyberspace. Keery is able to walk the line between sympathetic and sinister impeccably well – as he is consumed by his monstrous person we go from concern to being fearful of him in the flip of a coin - yet you can’t help but feel a twinge of sadness for the once-innocent socially awkward kid we saw in the beginning.
Kurt’s first two passengers, Frederick and Angela, are fairly two-dimensional but still work to serve a purpose – it's possible that they're intentionally unlikable to allow a level of complicity for Kurt’s actions. The dialogue between Kurt and the passengers can sometimes feel clunky - “you’re okay for a libtard” or “I have a female waiting for me you incel” - these are definitely comments you’d find online, but I’m doubtful of their real-life usage. However, they work as a means to the end, showcasing Kurt's tactics and ingenuity, until we reach Jessie Adams (Sasheer Zamata), his foil throughout the film. Here greater aspects of online personalities clash – Kurt gate-keeps Jessie over her online personality, when in reality Jessie is the real influencer, thereby implicating Kurt’s intensive jealousy which gradually drives him further over the edge.
Throughout the first act, BobbyBasecamp watches Kurt’s stream, and is one of the key actors in manipulating Kurt into advancing ‘#TheLesson’ – Bobby can be read as a Logan Paul-esque archetype, and works to fill the stereotypes of a typical influencer. It’s a fantastic use of Orville, due to his pre-established Vine fame, working as another metatextual reference that proves to the audience Kotlyarenko has considered how to bridge together the film’s social media world and our own. Bobby’s commentary pushes Kurt into more dangerous and morally wrong stunts, reflecting the reality of real-life controversial streamer Ice Poseidon, who was repeatedly pressured by fans into giving greater performances and eventually became the target of malicious acts, whilst cultivating a vicious cult-like following that simultaneously worshipped and despised him. Kotlyarenko and Keery actually researched Poseidon and Paul when constructing Kurt, so it’s no surprise there are shades of real streamers within his persona.
There's real intelligence in the script, and it's clear that McHugh considered questions audiences may raise while watching Kurt on his spree – the primary one being, how could someone documenting such blatant violence and murder not be stopped immediately? Kotlyarenko answers this firstly by highlighting Kurt’s lack of viewers, and then by displaying his new-found following’s lack of belief at the authenticity of Kurt’s antics - it’s a simple solution because it’s authentic. Kurt’s antics share parallels with controversial YouTuber Sam Pepper’s ‘Killing Best Friend’ prank, or Jaystation faking his girlfriend’s death - both being content creators who falsified horrific acts in the pursuit of viral fame. The social climate on the internet has largely shifted to a mantra of ‘nothing is authentic’, with the public personalities of YouTube and Twitch streamers being at least partially constructed for an audience.
The crescendo of Kurt’s madness is unpredictable chaos, culminating in a set piece at a taco truck that best exemplifies Spree’s ability to snap from awkward social anxiety to intense lunacy. Kurt’s unhinged mental state, spurred on by a now malicious cult-like fan-base, drives him to the one person who has everything he wants, and to him, does not deserve it – Jessie Adams. Kurt’s stalking of Jessie is frighteningly similar to the tragedy of Christina Grimmie in 2016. Whether intentional or not, it’s hard to escape these comparisons when dealing with themes of internet fanaticism and notoriety. Kurt’s complete confidence, alongside his nonsensical speech to Jessie, highlights just how far removed he’s become from the person we first met, and once more calls to mind the unhinged nature of figures like Isla Vista mass-murderer Elliot Rodger.
The most chilling moment of Spree is at its very ending – which without venturing into heavy spoiler territory adds a chilling conclusion, suggesting the entire concept of the film is frighteningly possible in the real world and in the current climate. In a world where murder and torture are live-streamed on Facebook, and killers are worshipped and praised on message boards, Spree leaves the question open of not how could something like this happen, but how long will it be until it does.
Spree releases on VOD and cinemas in the US and in UK cinemas from August 14.