Influencer had its world première at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival 2022
Madison (Emily Tennant) has never felt so isolated. A popular influencer, she is staying for a fortnight at a luxurious resort in Thailand, packaging her every experience, indeed her every meal, into shots and videos which she posts on Instagram with cheery messages and positive hashtags. Yet as she sells this perfect lifestyle for clicks and likes and attention and engagement, while also hawking the products of her sponsors, the inauthenticity of it all is becoming too much for Madison. Far from “experiencing Asia the way it was meant to be experienced” (as she claims in the voiceover for one of her videos), she is photographing and eating Western burgers from her hotel’s restaurant, and barely venturing beyond the pool – and worst of all, despite pontificating about “so many amazing people here living in the moment, making new friends all around the world”, she is in fact entirely alone. Her boyfriend Ryan (Rory J. Saper), who had got her into online influencing work in the first place, pulled out at the last minute from what was supposed to be their holiday together – and she is, for all her on-screen presence, quite introverted, and not at all good at discovering the local culture without Ryan’s guidance. So Madison sits, sad and isolated, contemplating a relationship that she thinks is coming to an end and a career in which she has lost all faith.
All this changes when she meets CW (Cassandra Naud), who rescues her in the hotel bar from leering old British drunkard Rupert (Paul Spurrier), and then takes it upon herself to give Madison a tour, whether by motorbike, ferry or powerboat, of some choice local sites. CW is Madison’s polar opposite: confident yet camera-shy (perhaps because of the prominent birthmark on her face), an analogue kind of girl in Madison’s all-digital world, and full of the get-up-and-go attitude that Madison lacks. When Madison’s hotel suite is ransacked and her passport stolen, she moves in with CW, and their complementary friendship grows ever closer – until finally CW boats Madison out to her special place, a distant, untouched island paradise. Except this idyll is already undermined by the sequence which opened Influencer: a slow aerial zoom towards that same island which ended with a high-angle shot of a person lying prone and dead where water meets land. This is a liminal, littoral space – not unlike the internet – which, for all its spectacle and allure, can also be where bad things wash up.
In Influencer, directed by Kurtis David Harder (InControl, 2017; Spiral, 2019), there is a sequence (pictured) where Madison and CW take a chartered boat through a winding, labyrinthine channel to a secluded cave. This picturesque journey offers a neat visual analogue of the film’s twisty, convoluted narrative, which travels to all manner of unexpected places, with a final destination in darkness. Madison’s sense of imposture and Rupert’s predation from the film’s first act will prove to be persistent themes – even as the personnel change – in what is a deft merger of George Sluizer’s The Vanishing (1988) and Danny Boyle’s The Beach (2000), along with trace elements from What Keeps You Alive (2018) and Harpoon (2019) – both of which Harder produced. Harder’s screenplay, co-written with Tesh Guttikonda, makes every line seem casual yet count in the end, allowing viewers to piece together a composite picture of characters lost to external images which equally mirror and mask their true selves. Here social media are exposed as virgin territories where fakery is foregrounded, where identity is not so much documented as invented and exploited, where emptiness, alienation and oblivion subsist in splendid isolation, and where not all followers have good intentions. This tense, tricksy trip through “one of the most beautiful places in the world” maps out our floating planet as a place where lives are either performed and shared online, or destined to be overlooked, forgotten and (short-)lived in their exile, voluntary or otherwise, from the global community.
Strap: Kurtis David Harder’s taut Thailand-set thriller follows the anxiety, emptiness and increasing isolation of online celebrity
© Anton Bitel