The Spool / Movies
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Kurtis David Harder directs a fun, timely thriller about the dangers of social media
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Kurtis David Harder directs a fun, timely thriller about the dangers of social media

Full disclosure: influencer culture is baffling to me. Though it’s hardly a new thing at this point, I simply do not understand the concept of looking to strangers on the internet (not even celebrities, just regular people!) for advice on everything from what to wear to what to eat to whether or not to vaccinate your children. How does this happen? Where do these people come from? Frankly, it’s a little creepy. Kurtis David Harder explores some of the aspects of it in Influencer, which doesn’t answer those questions, but is a tense, fun little thriller that takes some unexpected turns.

Madison (Emily Tennant) is an influencer, the kind who posts carefully staged photos of herself looking pensively at sunsets along with vapid platitudes about living your best life. Off-camera, however, she’s not living her best life. Alone on a luxury vacation in Thailand after her boyfriend, Ryan (Rory L. Saper), cancels at the last minute, she’s bored and lonely, and no longer seems to be enjoying her enviable job-that-isn’t-really-a-job.

Things get a little more interesting when she meets the enigmatic C.W. (Cassandra Naud), who appears to live in Thailand and is far more knowledgeable and self-assured about traveling around on her own there than Madison. Unusual for someone their age, C.W. has no social media presence, and in fact doesn’t even like having her picture taken, attributing her reluctance to the large birthmark on her face. Madison finds this both strange and tantalizing – what must it be like to live exclusively for yourself, as opposed to an unseen audience? Wouldn’t it be nice to just enjoy some scenery or eat a meal without posting a picture of it for hearts and comments from strangers?

After her passport is stolen, forcing her to extend her stay, Madison spends more time with C.W., who takes her to more remote parts of the country, including eventually a deserted island only accessible by boat, and so far off the beaten path that there’s no cell phone service. Madison isn’t nearly as put out by this as you might think, as she welcomes an excuse to be far away from where anyone can find her. Anyone at all.

Influencer (Shudder)

The opening credits for Influencer don’t drop until almost a half hour in, and it’s then that the story abruptly changes focus from Madison to C.W. We quickly learn that C.W. has been making a habit of ingratiating herself to female influencers traveling alone in Thailand. Next on her list is Jessica (Sara Canning), another shallow blonde like Madison, but a little older, seasoned and more cynical. Even she eventually falls for C.W.’s persistent charm, however, and another trip to that far-off island is on the horizon. That is, until Ryan, Madison’s thought-to-be-ex-boyfriend, unexpectedly shows up looking for her. Though how much he actually cares about what happened to Madison is debatable at first, it’s an unexpected kink in C.W.’s plans.

At the risk of splitting hairs, Influencer is less a horror movie and more of a psychological thriller (though things take a violent turn at around the halfway point). A very up-to-the-minute take on Single White Female, it plays on both the now very well-established notion that the image we present on social media is far different from the reality of our lives, and the innate sinisterness of A.I. and deep fake technology. While it takes influencers themselves to task, it also has nothing good to say about those who follow them, who supposedly know every aspect of their lives but also evidently aren’t able to recognize when someone else starts pretending to be them. At just 90 minutes, it breezes right by, with a fun surprise ending that plays around with our expectations about a certain character.

Much of the credit for Influencer’s success goes to Cassandra Naud, who makes C.W. a memorable antagonist. She’s chillingly calm in her work, and the fact that it’s never really explained how she came to acquire her enormous (ironically Instagram-ready) home, or who she really is, suggests that she’s been doing this for a long time. A master manipulator, her face changes from soft and open to hard in an instant. It’s a marvelously subtle performance for a character who could have easily been portrayed as a shrieking, unhinged maniac.

Like all interesting villains, though she definitely does terrible things, C.W. makes some good points. The very idea of influencer culture, led predominantly by privileged, conventionally attractive young white women, is borderline offensive. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of documenting your life for other people’s enjoyment (or for advertising money, it’s nice work if you can get it), but the problem is when such clout chasing results in things like refusing to abide by lockdown protocols at the height of COVID-19, or posing in fitnesswear in front of a Holocaust memorial. Granted, Madison isn’t quite as bad as that, but she’s getting there, and her “I’ve seen it all” boredom at such a young age is insufferable in its own way. One shouldn’t endorse what C.W. does, of course. But it’s understandable.

Influencer premieres on Shudder May 26th.

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