Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Influencer(2022) dir. Kurtis David Harder

Influence as Predation


A film made by an ambivalent digital native, Influencer sees through the all-too-common and frankly dull Gen X critique of social media influencers as an occupation emblematic of social decline or capitalistic excess (which is true, but nonetheless a tired critique). That’s not to say director Kurtis David Harder, who has enjoyed a quite successful career so far as a producer for only being 31, thinks of influencers as something of a best-case escape from the demanding capitalistic 9 to 5 work cycle. Harder, a digital native himself (31 counts, right?), along with his equally young co-writer Tesh Guttikonda, Influencer succeeds exactly where the digital immigrant critics stumble: to say something new.

The marketing premise pretty much sells the Shudder exclusive as a “hot social media influencer put in jeopardy during a dreamy workcation.” The description is technically true, I suppose, but it’s a lot like selling Jordan Peele’s Us (2019) as “one family meets another while on vacation.” Influencer is a well-cut and well-made thriller wrapped in the alluring guise of an influencer’s Thailand workcation. It doesn’t quite make hollow the question of an influencer’s rhetorical power; rather, it begs the question of whether such power even matters in the face of real-world predatory influence? What is real influence? 

The gender dynamics of Influencer are unconventional for the genre. It would have been a completely different scenario had the two main characters been male-female or female-male. Instead, we get two, as far as we know, completely heterosexual women: the conventionally attractive blonde influencer Madison (Emily Tennant) and CW, played by the basically immaculate Cassandra Naud. CW has lived in Thailand for some time and has a house that could be featured on any home real-estate reality television show. She notices a creepy man disturbing Madison, who is traveling solo because her boyfriend/manager backed out at the last minute, and comes to intervene in the name of womanhood. CW, like the actor who plays her, has a large birthmark on her face that gives the actress a unique appearance, which the filmmakers and talent brilliantly leverage. 

Let me get this straight: it’s not Naud’s face that is weaponized; it’s the lurid, creepiness of the viewer leaning into her appearance and the set of biases that we project onto her. (While I haven’t seen her in much else, in most reviews I wouldn’t even mention an accidental and potentially othering trait like a birthmark.) Maybe I’m still being too cryptic by hedging my analyses with the third person, so, to be even more honest: her beauty and birthmark worked together to make me lean into her performance, wanting more, only to have that exotified projection used against me in the film’s brilliant third-act. And her performance reveals how all “influence” is, in essence, just charisma exploited. 

I’m reminded by this subversion of Peele’s praise for Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019), where he called it the “most idyllic” horror movie ever made. Maybe I’m misinterpreting Peele, but I always thought of that as an interesting classification of a type of horror movie: the horror doesn’t come from the scares or imagery of the film itself, but from subsequent reflection on the disturbing way it made you feel about yourself. If this makes any sense at all, I think Influencer is idyllic in a similar way, revealing and scorching this viewer’s own biases. 

The thematic creativity almost overpowers its deepest flaw: the supporting cast and their general inability to read lines like professional actors. For some, the lack of quality acting might be too much to even power through—or perhaps, it will encourage viewers to metaphorically turn their brains off, not expecting there to be any there there. At one moment, a character, just recently introduced to both CW (her conversation partner) and the viewer, says, “There’s this restaurant I’ve been dying to show you,” completely ignoring the fact that she just met this girl and forgetting the fact that CW has been in Thailand longer than herself. The line made no sense and the delivery was equally careless. Naud exempted, this is some pretty rough stuff. If bad acting is an unbreachable wall for your enjoyment, you’ll probably want to avoid Influencer. For me, it wasn’t a deal breaker.

There’s a real influencer in this movie, and it’s not the women of social media: it’s a real person, aided by digital power (including credit card fraud and VFX skills) that uses actual influence for the purpose of predation. The idea of influence, or perhaps more accurately emotional leverage, is a bit harmless if it’s just used for selling teenage girls cosmetics; but when charisma becomes a tool for identity theft and murder, the real parasitic “influencers” stand out. With this young crew of filmmakers, even the predators now reflect the world of a digital native and that gives me hope for a more thoughtful and less technophobic generation of filmmakers than our previous one. 

Trying my best to avoid spoilers, I will say that some viewers may push back on this to suggest that the ending is technophobic and elevates “real” world as opposed to “digital” (read: fake) world skills…but I think that misses the degree to which Madison has fully integrated the two worlds: it’s just her life, which is in part digital and in part non-digital. That’s not to say this is a rose-colored, Metaverse-friendly future. Obviously, that’s not the case. It’s just a more complicated understanding of our screen abundant and constantly wired world.

Please don’t make any mistakes: I hold no sympathy for real-life social media influencers. Despite this, I appreciated Harder’s ending and the decision to imbue Madison with hidden character traits and practical skills that are typically associated with the non-terminally online. She’s more than meets the shallow public face of her self-marketing. It shouldn’t be a new take to suggest influencers are real people rather than mass-produced corporate shills finagling out of real jobs because they are hotter than us normies: they are no different from the rest of us, who have been bought and sold by the lies of capitalism. They just were able to capitalize (sorry!) on the realization that there is no ethical consumption—or labor—under capitalism.  

dir. Kurtis David Harder
92 min.

Streaming on Shudder beginning Friday, 5/26

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