Bobby Vogel on Spree (Eugene Kotlyarenko, 2020, US).
The most subversive and interesting moment in Spree has little to do with technology. Kurt (Joe Keery), a ride-share driver turned serial killer, desperate to go viral, has already committed most of his murders when he encounters two cops at a taco truck. They don’t recognise him, but he has an unconscious woman in his car, and they are suspicious. But the situation resolves in Kurt’s favor, and at the end of the scene he folds his hands and says, in earnest, “thank you God.”
With this moment director Eugene Kotlyarenko satirises not only the new brave world of social media but the religious impulse itself, or at least that of Americans, who tend to worship the self not by mistaking it for God, but by mistaking God for it. As someone once said, culture is religion externalised: the hellscape of social media which Spree lampoons is merely a reflection of a culture so spiritually degraded that a killer can think to thank God for allowing him to keep killing, and to be so deluded and narcissistic as to mean it.
This is American spirituality, and Spree, a film so unwholesome it is tedious, is at its most insightful when this hidden theme rears its head. Later Kurt will exclaim “I’m all about love now” while sitting next to a cross, in what is perhaps an allusive parody of Christian ideas of salvation, or at least of the abuse and distortion of them by a nation of addicts. Addiction, whether it be to drugs or online attention, breeds superstition and schizophrenic thinking. “Everything happens for a reason,” another character, equally addicted, intones, while Kurt believes in and acts on “universal coincidences.”
The endpoint of such thinking is thinking you’re a god, literalising and making explicit what was already an organising symbol. “Let there be light,” as Kurt says. But Spree’s determination to revel in the worst of digital culture, all the way down to the thousands of livestream comments scrolling throughout the film, is perverse. The movie is considerably intelligent, but it plays dumb. In general it does not provoke thought, and this would appear to be by design. It is the movie’s most curious and frustrating feature: it has anticipated with sadistic glee every take, every criticism, every interpretation one would make. Here Spree itself, like its characters, wants to play god, striking pose after pose of omniscience.
Spree has no moment of self-transcendent nobility such as when Koltlyarenko’s character in Wobble Palace (2018) washes his face, nor does it have anything close to the sweetness and genuine humanity of the scene at the radio station in A Wonderful Cloud (2015). In the latter, the Eugene character and his ex-girlfriend Katelyn (Kate Lyn Sheil) are interrupted, in a moment of increasing tenderness between the two of them, by Steve “the Station Manager” (Zach Shipko). Steve speaks slowly, with an impediment, and doesn’t realise he’s intruding. Yet somehow the tenderness keeps going, and the moment is like something out of Capra at his best.
That said, it doesn’t last. When Steve leaves, Eugene gratuitously explains to Katelyn that Steve is “a really nice guy, you just have to humor him a bit.” And you can watch Sheil’s face change like a barometer as she registers the selfishness of that line, of her ex-boyfriend’s inability to cherish, to let a special moment keep ringing in the heart. That tension between a male ego’s greed and feminine tenderness, also found throughout Wobble Palace (another collaboration with a beautiful woman), is absent in Spree. Spree lets nothing ring in the heart.
Kotlyarenko’s ambition to make the ultimate digital-found-footage movie seems to have locked him into a kind of straightjacket. His aim with Spree is not quite to depict the vices of social media, which is what Wobble Palace did, but rather to duplicate and embody those vices in a highly concentrated form. Spree thus comes from a fundamentally sick place in spite of its insight; it is cinema as homeopathy. Swallow this pill, drink this poison, the movie seems to say, and be cured of your own similar, inescapable vices—you know you have them. Its final sequence, in which Kurt becomes an online legend, addresses the entire audience of the film as “all you Kurties.” It is not easy to trust a film that is so cocksure about the nature of its audience, and of human beings. — Bobby Vogel
Director Eugene Kotlyarenko
Writer Eugene Kotlyarenko, Gene McHugh
Cinematographer Jeff Leeds Cohn
Editor Benjamin Moses Smith
Cast Joe Keery, David Arquette, Sasheer Zamata
Duration 93 minutes