Influencer – Be Careful Who You Listen To
Review by Thom Ernst – Film Correspondent
(May 31, 2023 – Toronto, ON) The hook that pulls the viewer into Influencer, the new film from director/producer Kurtis David Harder, runs on the promise of a contemporary thriller told in a traditional style. While we might hope for the standards of a thriller to remain, we are nonetheless pleased should those standards be subverted. These conflicted expectations are more paradoxical than ironic.
em>Influencer adheres to the traits of a classic thriller while dodging probability. Yes, there are twists—some you’ll predict and be right about, and others you’ll predict and be way off the mark. The appeal of Influencer is not in how deftly the filmmakers manipulate expectations but in the ease with which the film coaxes you on the journey even while making us aware that ahead lies unpleasantness.
The four central characters—two social influencers, Madison (Emily Tennant) and Jessica (Sara Canning) both on solo journeys through Thailand, a permanent ex-pat C.W. (Cassandra Naud), and jilted boyfriend, Ryan (Rory J. Saper) looking to make amends with his girlfriend—form a tangled nest of personalities scrambling for audience empathy. If a prerequisite to investing your time and concern relies on at least one likable character to cuddle up to, then Influencer might prove a challenge. All four want to be appreciated and would likely be shocked to think anyone would find them undesirable. They aren’t morally bankrupt, (okay, some of them are) but neither are they contenders for a humanitarian prize. These are deeply fallible people; a cross-section of wealth and privilege whose villainy includes arrogance, neediness, insincerity, and an unchallenged ego. They are frustratingly self-centered, fixated on gaining soulless popularity (a large Instagram following), and only aware of the beauty around them (the film is shot in Thailand) as an incidental backdrop to their selfie.
Tennant, Canning, and Saper put in solid performances that seamlessly interpret a story that could have been lost in a series of subtle and sometimes grand expositions. But it is Cassandra Naud who, as C.W., charges off the screen with measured resilience and a twisted dependency.
Harder sets the story in Thailand, enhancing its tale of social deception and insatiable greed, without vilifying the country or its people. It’s an achievement not to be ignored when so many films, particularly of the horror genre, fail to avoid the doomed American adrift in the terrifying clutches of foreign soil. If anything, Thailand should be wary of these four. But I’m not convinced that Influencer is a horror, despite its loose billing. As a horror, it hardly conforms to the traditional norms of the genre. Horrific things happen, and they happen in a dizzying array of comeuppance. The horror here is more in kind with The Talented Mr. Ripley than Midsomer. That doesn’t mean things aren’t unsettling; they are, and in some cases, in ways unimaginable. It all depends on where your empathy lies—and you can choose which of the four characters to empathize with without judgment—that determines how unsettling the comeuppance feels.
Throughout the film Harder shifts perspective and sometimes timelines, not as a way of allowing a varied point of view Rashomon-style, but as a way of telling the entire story. But Harder’s techniques are not so rare that they avoid comparisons to other directors. Alfred Hitchcock is an obvious influence, but even stronger alignments can be made with Truffaut (The Bride Wore Black) and Henri-Georges Clouzot (Diabolique, Wages of Fear). Some might even spot a spec of John McNaughton’s Wild Things in the mix.
The film does warrant a second viewing if only to make certain every maneuver, both grand and subtle, hasn’t gone unnoticed. And an additional viewing might aid in coming to terms with a conclusion that doesn’t necessarily adhere to all expectations.
Watch the trailer and learn more about Influencer.
Influencer is now streaming on Shudder. https://www.shudder.com
Thom Ernst is a Toronto based film critic and writer and an active member of the (TFCA) Toronto Film Critics’ Association. His work has appeared in various publications including Playback Magazine, The Toronto Star, and The National Post. He is known to CBC Radio listeners for his lively contributions to Fresh Air, Metro Morning, and CBC Syndication as well as appearing on-air for CTV News Channel and The Agenda with Steve Paikin. He was host, interviewer and producer of televisions’ longest running movie program Saturday Night at the Movies. Currently he can be heard interviewing Canadian filmmakers on the Kingston Canadian Film Festival podcast, Rewind, Fast-Forward.