“Influencer” is an unnerving, savagely smart social thriller that makes the most of its clever premise and outstanding performances.
The truest legacy of influencer culture may be a score of pithy think-pieces and a sense of righteous superiority that many of us, at times — I am not proud to admit, myself included — have felt to these people, these beautiful, glossy ideals, living in the pixels of carefully constructed photo ops. It’s easy to access that contempt.
It’s that feeling that celebrity is based on convincing people that they need things they don’t, that they should live a life they might not have otherwise wanted to, and that a carefully constructed fiction is in any way attainable. Above all else, it’s contemptible without actually interrogating the culture that creates these fables.
While Influencer does not necessarily deconstruct the complicated question of these personalities, it does remind us that there is a person behind the hashtags and sponsorship deals and that dehumanizing them comes at a cost to our own humanity.
Influencer wears its heart on its sleeve.
Madison, pretty, likable, and trusting, is on a solo trip to Thailand. Her boyfriend, a stone-cold turd whose early actions are not ultimately redeemed by his future behavior, ditched her last minute, leaving her to wander through the beautiful country alone, faking smiles for branded content and photographing everything.
Credit is due to both Influencer, the film, and Emily Tennant, the actress.
Madison could be a laughable character, constantly mining the real world for content, taking pictures of her food, and posing every moment out of existence.
However, the character plays as tragic. She is a sad young woman who never wanted the life she ended up in and whose huge social media following has left her feeling isolated and deeply lonely. Madison’s loneliness is not just a character trait but an essential plot point; this longing for connection makes her ripe for predation by CW, a caustic, funny, Aubrey Plaza-type.
Alright, now. I know some of you are purists and want nothing to do with anything even resembling a spoiler. So: please know I am still talking about the phenomenally long cold open. We’re talking an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind length cold open.
I’ll get slightly more profound on themes and metaphors later if that’s your jam. But before I can go any further, I need to establish; if you don’t like anything resembling a spoiler, please stop reading right fucking now.
Alright, the rest of us? Let’s go.
CW insinuates herself into Madison’s life, becoming a friend to a woman who desperately needs one. Ultimately, CW takes Madison to an isolated island and leaves her there, alone, with no resources to perish. CW returns to the mainland and assumes much of Madison’s identity. She takes over her socials, and everything seems like gravy trains with biscuit wheels until CW spots another influencer whose life she intends to ruin at the same time that Ryan arrives to investigate his absent girlfriend.
Everything more or less goes to shit from there.
CW proves to be smarter than your average sociopath while remaining, intentionally, a cipher.
Cassandra Naud plays the character with a sly nihilism. She deserves to be a star, and if there’s any reasonable justice in the universe, INFLUENCER will slingshot her to that status.
Influencer is exceptionally clever.
At a time when it’s very cool to hate influencers, the movie gently reminds us that they’re humans with wants, needs, and hopes. It’s a fucking job.
But perhaps Influencer’s most fascinating element is its timely reflection on AI and deep fakes. The movie reminds us that we live in a dangerous time where you can’t believe everything you see, not only because of the carefully curated lies of social media but because technology has allowed an extra layer of artifice.
Yes, an influencer may be selling us a lie, but what about the coder or AI who can perfectly replicate that face and voice to push an agenda? The fiction runs deep-too deep to even hear the final death throes of reality.
This isn’t to say Influencer is perfect. CW’s motives are left incredibly vague. I recognize, acknowledge, and often love ambiguity as a motivation. Name me a more impactful final line than that of The Strangers: “Why us?” “Because you were home.”
But there is a strong sense that Influencer is trying to, capital S, Say Something. And to achieve that fully, it feels like we need to understand precisely what CW’s motivations and goals are. Which we absolutely do not.
This wouldn’t be such a glaring omission if it weren’t for the fact that Influencer has a message, and in many ways, CW is the very delivery service employed to parlay it.
However, removing entirely the compulsion for deeper analysis (if you can; God knows I can’t), Influencer is well-paced, sharp, and engaging.
Where precisely Influencer falls on the horror scale will vary from audience to audience.
The body count is relatively low, and the gore is virtually non-existent. But I contend that Influencer should scare us all. It’s a sort of latter-day Body Snatchers that reminds us that the limits of our person are the limits of someone else’s coding ability.
We can’t own ourselves anymore. We can’t even curate our image with any true certainty.
Influencer suggests that we are concepts that can easily be taken over by an invading force. What could be more frightening?