Film

We Could Have Been a Power Couple!: A Conversation on “Spree”

Joe Keery as Kurt Kunkle in Spree

The day after I finished watching Eugene Kotlyarenko’s film Spree, Azealia Banks documented digging up her dead cat Lucifer and boiling his bones on Instagram stories (apparently she wants to gild his skull). It was a witchier version of Joe Keery’s maniacally eager, viewer count-obsessed protagonist and spree killer Kurt Kunkle’s homicidal ride-share rampage turned lurid live-stream in Spree. Drawn in by this sordid synergy, Jessica Caroline and I chatted about the film and other voyeuristic pleasures:

Emily Colucci: Between Azealia’s kitty Lucifer’s ongoing posthumous skeletal fame (she mused last night about turning his jawbones into “titanium cat jaw ear cuffs”) and the Trump cultists storming the Capitol Building before reverting to slack-jawed selfie-taking tourists, I can’t help but think Spree darkly and hilariously depicts our pervasive sordid interest in abject, violent spectacle. If I’m being honest, I’d probably watch Kurt’s #TheLesson. If not when it was happening, I’d be one of those people deep-diving on Reddit boards they showed at the very end of the film. I love abject spectacle. Lana Del Rey also recently spoke on the BBC about how she thinks narcissism and sociopathy are two of the biggest dangers of our times, which I think nicely ties into the film. How did you view Spree in light of our current wave of social media-driven psychosis?

Jessica Caroline: Shouldn’t we all be so honored to be dug up by Azaelia and subsequently enshrined? Her Dr. Seussian narration was hilarious. The cat is in the bag! One afterthought I had was–how did it smell? Cat corpse must be all sorts of rank. 

EC: Well, she actually addressed the smell to a commenter on her Instagram who said her house must stink: “It honestly doesn’t. It could smell way worse. But it’s honestly very fragrant and floral in here.” I don’t believe that for a second. But I guess fragrant and floral could be unusual descriptors for rotting cat carcass! 

JC: Surprising! As for LDR, she said nothing particularly provocative. It’s dumb the way the media took her BBC interview out of context. I like that she stood her ground afterward. I was mesmerized and frankly embarrassed to be alive the day of the Capitol riots, and the grandstanding that followed in Congress goes to show how no mortifying event goes unexploited. Spree, of course, reiterates the way we derive perverse amusement from spectacle. What Lana said about delusions of grandeur was apt, someone like Kurt Kunkle doesn’t know how else “to be wild in the world” aside from performing violence. It’s narcissism coupled with a lack of imagination.

EC: Justice for Lana!!! I was about ready to film my own “Leave Lana Alone” video in front of a bedsheet after her comments got taken out of context. To what you said about Spree, I think the film reiterates our perverse amusement without giving some sort of lame finger-wagging commentary about it. It just is. A lot of the reviewers (some who did not like it one bit!) seemed to understand the film as a sort of cautionary tale about social media–if you care too much about likes, you’ll murder everyone! Or get murdered! I disagree with that read completely. Like Ingrid Goes West (which I watched after Spree–perfect double feature film!), I see this more as a reflection rather than a morality tale. One of my favorite parts was when Kurt is trying to evade the cops on the LA freeway. One of the drivers that swerves to avoid him manages to film him as he goes by and posts on Instagram that they saw the Ride Share Killer. I think that’s so accurate in terms of how people react to things now. Film first, act later. And everyone likes a little proximity to fame–or infamy. What did you take as the film’s perspective on social media? I mean, when you’ve got QAnon storming the Capitol, aren’t we a little late for cautionary tales? 

JC: I read some of the reviews and thought jeez, can you all just lighten up a little? One reviewer described it as “depressing” and I thought, really? I was laughing every time Kurt Kunkle mischievously glanced at his camera. It was a tremendous release from all the excessively twee Oscar-baiting dramas we have to endure around this time of year. Spree isn’t interested in scoring woke points, it has no moral center, it exists to activate the pleasure center. Repetition compulsions and dopamine rushes abound as he goes from minor to major kills. I’ll add here that Kurt can be just as cringeworthy and insufferable as Michaela Coel’s Arabella in I May Destroy You, who broadcasts her social justice warrior thoughts as they come to her. The latter, of course, goes deeper because it’s getting into other issues like consent, but both confront how far gone we are in our need for attention, leverage, and validation from strangers. Arabella embodies both Ingrid Goes West’s Ingrid and Taylor. She is the unstable narrator of her own life, but her lifestyle is also aspirational (the coolest clothes, the all-expenses-paid vacation in Italy, the book deal, the fans, the partying, the slightly dopey yet adorable friends that care about and indulge her…). Do any of these social media satires make you wanna delete your accounts forever? No, but we are increasingly aware of how debased we are by it and how our curiosity about others drives us. At best, they warn us to switch off more often and take none of it seriously.

EC: Kurt Kunkle’s ecstatic and mischievous look reminded me a bit of another depiction of a murder spree, though certainly pre-influencer era: Darren Criss’ Andrew Cunanan in The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story. Similar to Kurt, you’re repulsed, yet intoxicated by his actions. And Cunanan’s demented dopamine hit comes with a side of Laura Branigan’s “Gloria,” which has now been granted new life as the soundtrack to a violent Capitol insurrection. And it all comes back around to that abject spectacle! 

I’m glad you brought up I May Destroy You. I thought of Arabella quite a number of times throughout Spree, even though they’re completely different angles on social media (hence why the reviews I saw that compared them seemed a bit off). And yet, despite their differences, there’s still that inner need for gratification by other’s “views” or “likes.” 

If we’re talking about films that tackle social media and murder though, American Murder: The Family Next Door seems to be a more logical one to bring up, which was consequently on John Waters’ best of 2020 list (the only endorsement I need!). It’s a true crime film about the 2018 Watts family murders told entirely through social media posts, family home videos, security cameras, law enforcement recordings, etc. Though true crime rather than fiction, American Murder: The Family Next Door is a stylistic twin to Spree. Spree takes its visual style from the various social media platforms from which Kurt was broadcasting his show “Kurt’s World”–YouTube and Instagram stories to dashcams and security cameras. What were your thoughts on the aesthetics of the film? At certain points, since I was watching on Hulu, I was trying to get the scroll bar off the screen, only later realizing it was part of the film! 

JC: Haha yes, it comes across DIY but is ingeniously layered with screens embedded in screens and the constant commentary adds to the frenzied energy. I have to watch the Versace and American Murder thing–so many gaps in my education.

EC: Speaking of frenzied energy, I also thought the film was Just. So. LA. And though social media obsession is everywhere, obviously, it felt as if the film couldn’t have been set anywhere else. Even in New York, we aren’t quite ground zero for TikTok houses (not yet anyway–Andrew Yang suggests encouraging TikTok Hype Houses in NYC as part of his mayoral platform) and influencer comedians in the way LA is. LA seemed to become a character in and of itself–the taco trucks, the homeless encampments (sadly such an LA fixture), Mischa Barton…

JC: No, it was highly LA appropriate! I love the way the film captures the landscape and the comedy circuit. The homeless encampment scene was just SO wrong in the most morbidly funny way. Nobody gets a pass in this movie! It reminded me a bit of Velvet Buzzsaw (which was very Miami appropriate)–nobody deserves to die; they’re all just deeply shallow or slightly misguided and they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was a little bummed Ariel Pink didn’t make a cameo. He screams LA to me. I was thinking to also watch Cam as research on, what I’ll broadly call, “mediation horror” genre as well (I suppose it all started with Videodrome?), but there was something about the trailer for that movie that seemed a little nastier and too serious, not trashy enough. I often have to stop watching movies like Hostel halfway through for this reason: too much body horror. The murders in Spree are mostly quick and painless, borderline joyful. It’s not the same thing as slowly extracting an eyeball from a socket. It’s hard to imagine what kind of trash horror film would be uniquely New York appropriate. That Citizen app is full of ideas. I love me some Yang, though I don’t always agree with his tech positive ideas. “TikTok creator collective” sounds like a good basis for something horrifying. Killer choreographers? Ha.

Mischa Barton and Frankie Grande (in back) before their untimely end

EC: Velvet Buzzsaw! Yes! I think Spree is in the canon of campy trashy horror films like that rather than body horror slasher films, which I’m not a big fan of either (so serious!). When I think of classic trash NYC horror films, though, I think of Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, which is just a laughably bad and uproariously fun watch. But in general, I think NYC horror films don’t work because NYC is a horror film on a daily basis! 

I do think some of Kurt’s victims in Spree, though, seemed to deserve it or at least were not deserving of our sympathies. A lot of them, let’s be honest, had to go: the douchey white supremacist (“Say it, I’m white and I’m proud”), the loud-talking cactus-holding real estate agent, the leering sexual harasser dude-bro, Frankie Grande (in an appearance that made me squeal with joy! I love that trash bag!) and Mischa Barton as awful LA partiers. Even Kurt’s smug TikToker former babysitt-ee Bobby. But the gleeful horror film takes a real shift in tone after Kurt takes Sasheer Zamata’s comedian/influencer Jessie Adams hostage (riding in his car for the second time after her social media-leaving comedy show). 

JC: Oh I totally agree–most of them are obnoxious and have got it coming to them. Poor Mischa though! She was guilty by association (or perhaps belated atonement for The O.C...). Yes, when Kurt announces to Jessie he’s taking her to his house, that feeling of dread seeps in and the comedic line is crossed. There’s a shot from the dashboard where they’re driving in the dark and you’re very much contained in Jessie’s point of view from that moment. That oh I’m screwed feeling that gets you into a fight or flight mode. The airbag popping from the steering wheel is so perfectly timed. That’s when the fear subsides a little. It’s all rather cathartic: Die psycho white boy! Die!!! 

EC: That ominous dashboard shot when Jessie is riding in his car, anticipating…whatever it is Kurt’s got planned (their future as a “power couple”?) reminded me of the long driving sequences in the final episode of Twin Peaks: The Return. Of course, David Lynch lingered for an excruciatingly extended time on these (lost) highway shots and again, of course, Lynch gave us no catharsis in The Return–just (not) Laura’s scream into the abyss. 

In Spree, though, I think it was the moment when Jessie becomes the protagonist rather than Kurt–we identify with her and also her eventual self-defense victory. As with Kurt’s victims, it was time for Kurt to GO! On the subject of the characters, I thought the casting was pretty ingenious, from Joe Keery to David Arquette as his equally desperate wannabe washed-up DJ dad who is just like Kurt but nowhere near as imaginative as deciding to use homicide as a way to get Internet fame!

JC: I know!! It’s like he’s reprising his Deputy Doofus Dewey from Wes Craven’s Scream! Love Arquette in this. There’s something innately endearing about him. 

Jessie Adams and Kurt Kunkle on the highway to hell

EC: Sasheer’s Jessie, though, I think is a really interesting character study. She’s more “authentic”/less attention-starved seeming in her social media use than Kurt (at least pre-murder spree Kurt–is murderer Kurt authentic Kurt?), but on stage during her comedy show, she admits to seeing herself in Kurt’s lame “follow for follow!” desperation and says she’s going off social media cold turkey, crushing her phone. At the end of the film after killing Kurt in self-defense, she posts a selfie with his blood-drenched face (responding to a suggestion on his livestream) and goes off social media for, presumably, not that long, returning as a hero. What did you think of her character? 

JC: Often comedian routines in movies are distinctly dull, but from memory (and I’ve only viewed the film once), her jokes on stage were on point. She’s an object of infatuation; she’s confident, clever, and sassy. She also embodies the thoughts we’ve been harboring about going offline for some modicum of self-preservation, then she occupies the space of the viewer under threat, and then, in turn, she becomes a vessel for audience participation. There would be no other way to complete the circle of morbid absurdity than for her to take that final glorious selfie. And hopefully, it’s her last before she goes on hiatus to some fabulous remote island. That’s what I’d want for her, anyway… Kurt gets exactly what he wants in the end.

EC: Fame! In that way, isn’t Kurt just a little Norma Desmond for the influencer generation? To bring it back to the Capitol insurrection, Olivia Nuzzi in New York Magazine recently described Trump as “Norma Desmond with the nuclear codes and sycophantic butlers in his ears on a West Wing Sunset Boulevard soundstage,” which is a beautiful image. It’s fascinating how all these fame-seekers eventually disintegrate in similar ways in the end, whether fictional murderers or twice-impeached presidents. 

JC: I am a star!!!!!  Joe Keery definitely got those Norma Desmond crazy eyes down. We’d be remiss not to comment on the other news of the day, namely Macaulay Culkin joins calls to get Donald Trump cameo removed from Home Alone 2 and replace it with an older version of Culkin himself. Huh? I tend to think we need to call an end to the revisionist history madness. That cameo was, let’s face it, the best thing Trump ever did. It was all downhill from there… 

EC: I think it’s intensely important that we keep Trump in every single thing he has appeared in! We need to sit with, for many, many years, just how pervasive he was in American culture long before he decided he had political goals or really, as Michael Cohen describes, wanted to launch a presidential campaign as the best infomercial ever. Like it or not, Trump is American as a rotten apple pie! And as American as Kurt’s needy murder spree! 

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