‘Influencer’ Review: A Refreshingly Sharp and Sinister Thriller About Social Media Exploitation

The 2022 film 'Influencer.'
‘Influencer’ streaming on Shudder. (Photo via Valentina Vectors/Shutterstock)

There’s no shortage of thrillers attempting to capitalize on the perpetually trendy and changing landscape of internet technology and social media. From early 2000s turkeys like “FearDotCom” to more thoughtful, recent genre hits such as Searching and 2020’s “Host,” we’re always grappling with our reliance on (and often our addiction to) online validation and the means by which we pursue it. It’s a trend that can be remarkably stupid when it’s fumbled, but “Influencer” from filmmaker Kurtis David Harder is a refreshingly sharp and sinister movie that has no interest in letting any of us off the hook (especially cantankerous luddites like me who’d like to think they keep all of this social media nonsense in perspective).

Influencer opens with Madison (Emily Tennant), an online influencer, emptily ticking down her lonely days at a sparsely populated Thailand resort. The depths of her isolation are obvious from the start and the crisp cinematography highlights the lush daily surroundings that loom over her with hollow, landscaped menace. It’s no surprise when she quickly bonds with a local woman named CW (Cassandra Naud) who’s close in age and keen on all of the best places to visit.

‘Influencer’ is the web noir we’ve been waiting for. Now streaming on Shudder.

What ensues has enough left turns that it’s worth preserving, but “Influencer” shifts perspectives more than once and repeatedly implicates its audience in the process. What begins as Madison’s story quickly pivots to CW whose disdain for social media manifests as self-justified meddling in the lives of others. CW hijacks the narrative by design and at that point we’re largely operating on her terms while getting a taste for how she uniquely bends situations to her advantage.

The small cast of characters expands slightly to include another influencer named Jessica (Sara Canning) and Madison’s estranged boyfriend Ryan (Rory J. Saper) who’s flown to Thailand in an attempt to win back Madison’s affections. Jessica, Ryan, and CW soon find themselves sharing a swanky AirBnB under false pretenses and that’s when everyone’s true intentions begin to bear out.

“Influencer” is at its best when it addresses the blunted nature so many have towards influencer culture; it’s easy to criticize from a distance and CW seems to consider herself someone who exists outside of the social media bubble, an online pseudo-vigilante poised to serve up poetic justice that pads her lifestyle and bottom line. Ryan seeks out and identifies talent for online branding and having met Madison under those circumstances, it’s only fair to question his motivation. By placing them in direct conflict, this movie embraces more than passing cynicism while acknowledging the difficult realities of building a sustainable online following and the growing surrender of autonomy that typically yields.

The central friction between CW and Ryan raises some of the more interesting questions in the film as it pits a morally pliable interloper against a self-righteous gaslighter and their growing mutual distrust leads to some truly dark places. In her selfish pursuit to exploit others, CW ends up having to adopt a lot of the fake behavior she purports to condemn, and Naud ably conveys how swiftly CW’s fuse is shortening every time she isn’t clever enough to stay two steps ahead of everyone else.

Conversely, Ryan has more function than depth, but Saper’s blithe delivery makes it fun to shake your fist at the character a bit. Jessica is similarly utilized and aside from some amusing exchanges with CW, we don’t get much insight into her personality. On one hand, it’d be easy to assume that Harder might be commenting on the fleeting superficialities typically associated with social media and personal detachment through technology, but it feels more like he played everyone’s cards too close to the vest which kept me from fully connecting with any character on a more human level.

Regardless, the dual arcs for CW and Ryan drive home “Influencer’s” themes on internet monetization and exploitation. CW essentially bankrolls her life by commandeering the success of others and trying to hide it while Ryan shamelessly approaches every woman he encounters as a potential meal ticket for himself and his revolving door of sponsors. “You’re…unique,” he says to CW at one point in a conniving attempt to sell her on the possibility of being an internet celebrity herself. Ryan’s hunt for more algorithmic leverage is something he confidently leads with at every turn and even though CW scoffs at his sales pitch, she’s the dark reflection of Madison, Jessica, and other influencers already which makes her the perfect hypocrite to root out another con artist.

While it stops short of explicit parallels, “Influencer” evokes trends we’ve seen play out in recent real-life tragedies. With the proliferation of social media, it’s become easier to perpetuate false narratives online whether they originate from individuals hoping to polish up the appearance of their own lives or from malicious parties who simply keep up appearances on somebody else’s account after that person vanishes. What sets this movie apart is its focus on social media engineering as a tool to be sharpened by professional manipulators which in this case applies to both CW and Ryan. If Madison and Jessica represent the superficial glitz most of us associate with TikTok and Instagram, CW is the worst of our sanctimonious judgment.

Despite its emotional restraint, it’s easy to get swept up in the sheer style of “Influencer.” Cinematographer Robert Pistillo makes the most of the tropical setting with sweeping drone photography and an ecstatic eye for deep blues and reds. Composer Avery Kentis lends substantial dread and atmosphere to the imagery with his thrumming, almost relentless score. It kept my pulse raised even in the quieter moments, keying into stark anxiety more than actual fear. 

Anxiety-based horror is on the rise and while this film doesn’t quite reach the feverish heights of Ari Aster’s recent opus “Beau Is Afraid,” it seizes on specific concerns surrounding AI, online exploitation, and identity theft that are frighteningly relatable. If anything, “Influencer” could have leaned even more into some of the dark satirical elements it introduced, but it commits to being more dour than wicked which slightly undermines the tension going into the final act.

Even so, Influencer is certifiably an upper-tier Shudder watch that showcases an exciting addition to this filmmaker’s repertoire. Harder’s previous film, 2019’s Spiral (very much NOT from the Book of SAW mind you, but also streaming on Shudder) is a genuinely creepy social thriller about a gay couple in 1995 contending with homophobia and possibly supernatural threats in their new town. Both movies have me primed for whatever Harder does next and if that happens to include an Influencer sequel, he’s set it up nicely.

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