The word alone induces twinges of dread and disgust: “influencer,” along with its evil siblings “vlogger,” “social media personality,” “YouTuber,” and “TikTok sensation,” have made our depreciating society even grimmer. Upon encountering any of these odious modern designators in a film synopsis, or anywhere else, you know you’re in for some shallow, grating, cutthroat personalities. Which is why the horror genre may be the best place for these types, as the promise exists that their hollow endeavors—whether it be hyping travel, food, or music, and of course always themselves—will become gravely challenging, or the competition extra fierce.
So going into a film called simply Influencer, our natural tendency is to want to hate it, especially as films of like substance are often cheapies cashing in on trends of the moment, with titles containing every imaginable variation of “follow,” or constructions adopting the mostly crappy found-footage format or, even worse, presenting the story entirely within an internet-based medium. But director (plus co-writer, -editor, and -producer) Kurtis David Harder has done something of the impossible: he’s crafted a slick, engaging chiller that uses social media smartly, relying on its physical practices minimally. Much of his acumen lies in the choice to humanize our influencer, Madison (Emily Tennant), who is traveling in Thailand alone (her jackass boyfriend bailed last-minute). Like with the film itself, our immediate urge is to hate her—to reject all her Southern California bubbly-blonde perfection—but when we see that she’s actually lonely and disenchanted, itching to flee her empty vocation and relationship, revulsion transforms into compassion.
We certainly root for her when she meets CW (Cassandra Naud) one night at a bar: the latter rescues Madison from an awkward pickup, and an immediate bond forms between the two women. CW seems like a genuine person, with a brain and a sense of adventure, enviably free from the confines of social media. Madison, trapped in town after her room is broken into and her passport stolen, relies on her new companion to keep her entertained and becomes revitalized by their developing friendship. But as with all things that seem too perfect, there is most definitely a trade-off—which is why it doesn’t feel like too much of a spoiler to say that Influencer pulls a Psycho nearly half an hour in, and the film is no longer led by our first-act protagonist. The opening credits roll and the movie—a darkly delightful portrait of diabolical imposture and abduction with hints of both The Talented Mr. Ripley and The Vanishing—is just getting started. CW takes over Madison’s online persona, and her real-life financial status too, as she zeroes in on her next target, Jessica (Sara Canning), another influencer touring tropical paradise to flaunt just how glorious her life is. But complications arise when the New York–savvy Jessica turns out to be a harder sell than anticipated, and Ryan (Rory J. Saper), Madison’s now-ex (she had gotten up the nerve to give him a video-chat kiss-off), shows up in Thailand trying to make amends.
Harder’s previous directorial efforts all signaled the possibilities of great things to come, and at just 31, he presents his first film to fully confirm that potential. Beyond its strong writing, Influencer benefits from beautiful people (played by performers who can act as well as they look) and perhaps even more beautiful scenery (filmed on location in the most Instagrammable spaces of Thailand), but it’s appropriately and satisfyingly ugly and nasty on the inside. And while it might have been nice to learn more about CW’s past and motivations, the fact that we don’t is in keeping with today’s digital existence that devalues human life. The film attests that anything goes in today’s world, and that away from screens, the desperate search for approval via likes and followers is ultimately meaningless—a horror on the level of social-media addicts with no internet connection.
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