Influencer review: a cutthroat social thriller

Madison and CW ride on a boat together in Influencer.

“Cassandra Naud steals the show in Influencer, the new sharply focused, deadly fun thriller from director Kurtis David Harder.”

Pros

  • Cassandra Naud’s star-making lead performance

  • A subversive, unpredictable screenplay

  • A shocking, game-changing first-act twist

Cons

  • A third-act that gets a bit too twisty for its own good

  • An underdeveloped romantic subplot

Influencer isn’t what you think it is. The new Shudder exclusive from director and co-writer Kurtis David Harder is a cutthroat, contained thriller that takes the perverse slasher formula of a Brian De Palma classic like Dressed to Kill and updates it for our current social media age. The result is a film that is every bit as crude and mean-spirited as its influences, but far more interestingly structured and sharply focused than its all-too-familiar, trip-abroad-gone-wrong premise may lead you to believe.

Anchored by one mesmerizing, potentially star-making performance, Influencer may not make very many new points about the unspoken artificiality of a social media star’s life, but it does consistently subvert its viewers’ expectations in ways that are often exciting to witness. What’s even more impressive is how the film’s various twists and sudden left turns — of which there are many — are presented. Influencer’s story doesn’t so much accelerate or ramp up as it gradually unfolds.

Over the course of its 91-minute runtime, the film slowly but surely submerges viewers deeper and deeper beneath its layers of deception, impersonation, and, of course, murder. It doesn’t come as much of a surprise then when the film’s third act features an underwater brawl that feels like an inevitable beat for a thriller that is as murky and dangerous as Influencer.

Emily Tennant stands in a doorway in Influencer.
Shudder

While the film leaves the actual identity of its eponymous “influencer” up to interpretation, its plot, for all intents and purposes, revolves around Madison (Emily Tennant), a successful but lonely social media star. When Influencer begins, Madison is in the midst of an unfulfilling, isolated trip to Thailand that she was convinced to take by her ambitious, social media-obsessed boyfriend, Ryan (Rory J. Saper). Her trip seemingly takes a turn for the better when she crosses paths one night with CW (Cassandra Naud), a mysterious girl who offers to show her some alternatives to the tourist trap spots that have consumed most of her trip.

It shouldn’t be considered a spoiler to say that CW’s interest in Madison isn’t nearly as pure as she makes it out to be. To say much more about where Influencer goes from there would, however, spoil one of the best aspects of the thriller, which mines most of its entertainment value out of its unpredictable story and structure. At first, Influencer may not seem all that unconventional or daring, but that all begins to change once its credits finally roll around the film’s 26-minute mark.

An unexpected first-act turn pushes you headfirst into the film’s twist-laden middle section, which grows increasingly complex, convoluted, and deadly the further into its own web of lies Influencer gets. By the time Saper’s Ryan shows up in Thailand looking to patch things up with Madison, the film’s script by Harder and Tesh Guttikonda has already set up plenty of possibilities for bloodshed. While Influencer definitely isn’t afraid to confront the violence brimming beneath the surface of its story, the film usually arrives at its physical confrontations in ways that are either shocking, tragic, or an acid-tinged mix of both.

Cassandra Naud looks at a phone screen in Influencer.
Shudder

At the center of all of the film’s twists is Naud’s CW, who plays a more active role in Influencer’s story than any of its other characters. With the weight of that responsibility on her shoulders, Naud turns in a beguiling, scene-stealing performance as CW, a character whose unpredictability injects Influencer with a much-needed dose of danger. Harder, for his part, wisely lets multiple key moments in Influencer play out entirely on Naud’s face. The actress, in turn, makes watching CW impulsively react to certain shocking developments just as entertaining as watching her carry out one of her carefully calibrated plans.

Whether or not Naud will get the chance to take on more lead roles in the future will likely depend on how much attention Influencer gets, but the actress certainly proves herself capable of handling even the most ambiguous of characters here. Her performance enhances both the mood and murkiness at the center of Influencer’s Russian doll-esque narrative, which helps make up for the fact that the film doesn’t take its ideas about the falseness of one’s online identity as far as it could.

Harder and Guttikonda do pack in a few cutting jabs at the ways in which a person’s online following can both inflate their ego and help them avoid the loneliness of life. However, Influencer doesn’t ultimately have all that much to say about the toxicity of those who can’t turn their phones off or those who resent them for their online addictions. That’s made evident by the film’s twisty third act, which is, much like the rest of Influencergenuinely surprising, but also a bit too tidy and cute for its own good.

Emily Tennant takes a selfie near a pool in Influencer.
Shudder

What Influencer lacks in thematic depth it more than makes up for in pure entertainment value. The film is a surprising, delightfully subversive thriller that’s best seen with as little prior knowledge about its plot as possible. There’s more going on in it than there initially appears, which is fitting for a film that is solely interested in what may lurk just beyond the edges of each of its characters’ carefully cropped Instagram posts.

Influencer is now available to stream exclusively on Shudder.

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