by William J. Hammon, Founder, ActuallyPaid.com
There’s a certain joy in rooting for the bad guy in a movie. A truly great villain can win you over in a number of ways, be it strong characterization, a sadistic glee in their methods, or a logic in their actions that surprises the viewer by making an odd sort of sense. That’s what I got from Influencer. Writer-director Kurtis David Harder crafts a relatively simple but massively fun bit of modern horror thanks in large part to his focus on a truly compelling baddie that will earn your respect, and perhaps even outright admiration.
In a subtle but risky move, Harder doesn’t even roll the opening credits until a third of the way through the film, because it’s that important to show the process by which CW, played exquisitely by Cassandra Naud, takes out her victims. Set in Thailand, CW targets and befriends social media influencers traveling alone, befriending them and earning their trust, before leaving them to die on a remote island. That sounds relatively straightforward, but the execution is divine.
The first 25 minutes show this genius in action, as CW meets Madison (Emily Tennant), vacationing without her boyfriend Ryan (Rory J. Saper), who also makes a living through Instagram. Harder goes to great lengths to show the inherent shallowness of the influencer lifestyle, as Madison constantly takes selfies and narrates a travelog about how she’s experiencing Thai culture, meeting tons of new people, and seeing the gorgeous sights properly, even though she’s literally alone at a luxury resort that she never leaves. The visual juxtaposition of her empty monologue not only illustrates the core problem with social media as a “job,” but prepares the audience for a sense of schadenfreude when the other shoe inevitably drops.
Enter CW, who already has the young woman practically dead to rights. She’s able to key in on Madison’s insecurities, show her the country the way she wants, and bit by bit set her trap, giving Madison the in-person validation she craves from her digital audience while simultaneously using her addiction to her phone against her.
Between Madison and another potential prey in Jessica (Sara Canning), the beauty of CW’s game is that for her victims, their salvation is right in front of their faces, if only they’d take two seconds to look around and take in what’s going on. Their respective feeds give CW everything she needs to placate and exploit their egos. Every time they look down to post a photo or type out hashtags, she has all the time she needs to steal something important. It gives a delicious new meaning to the idea of having a “follower,” as CW turns into the best kind of stalker, one who simply observes and disseminates the proper information without ever needing to creepily hide in the shadows. Hell, that’s half the fun, as CW (and Naud) has a distinct and beautiful facial birthmark, yet is quite adept at remaining unnoticed until it’s time to strike because her targets are too self-absorbed to put down their phones and notice this very conspicuous person. These people provide the ropes to hang themselves. CW simply tricks them into putting the noose around their own necks.
And like so many great villains, she’s always thinking. The arrival of Ryan adds a set of complications, but CW’s constantly one step ahead. She can improvise a solution to some of the bigger issues, and even when it appears she’s made a crucial error, she knows there’s a way out that she can take at any point.
This, to me, puts her in the conversation with greats like Hannibal Lecter and Jigsaw. The fun of such characters is that their motivations are based in some sort of internal logic, even when it’s not explicitly stated. Lecter is a cannibal because he sees the common man as cattle. He respects and even loves people who can prove themselves worthy of his intellectual attention, but the rest are fodder in his eyes. For John Kramer, after being diagnosed with a terminal illness in the original Saw, he decided to set his torture porn traps to make his victims see the value of life and fight for it, and he always provided them with the means to “win” through his crucible of pain.
Naud plays CW in a similar manner. Instead of some trite whining about not being “pretty” enough, or some grandstanding about doing something worthwhile to society, she simply notes two devastating truths (in her mind, anyway): entitlement and independence. There’s no cliché diatribe expositing her evil plan, just an interpretation of influencer culture that she follows to what she believes is its natural conclusion, that those who spend their time pretending to live the high life for the paltry attention of anonymous people on the internet come to expect special treatment they don’t deserve, and with so many of them out there, any who disappear will ultimately not be missed. Because of this, she believes that none of them are capable of surviving on their own, and as such are chaff to be culled.
This makes her an oddly relatable sociopath. While none of us would condone murder, we’ve all seen our share of hopelessly self-centered people who think that being attractive and selling makeup counts as contributing to the world while at the same time being too dumb to pump their own gas. We’ve seen the idea of being famous for being famous enter the mainstream, accompanied by an almost Orwellian insistence that we celebrate these same people for gracing us with their existence. People openly fantasize about joining this parade of luxuriated lethargy, and faking it until they do so, even though the odds of it happening are astronomical. It’s maddening. So in that respect, there’s a degree of shared sadism in the idea of exposing their many shortcomings and hoisting them with their own petard. No sane person would ever do that, but we certainly understand the idea and the desire.
That’s what makes CW such a fun antagonist, and that’s what makes Influencer such a fun ride. And to Harder’s extreme credit, he does make sure to give the other characters just enough depth to make us second guess ourselves if we start to look at them in a way that’s too mean-spirited. These are still human beings, after all, even with their massive personality flaws. Some of the best horror movies of all time became great because of their richly-drawn characters, regardless of their positions on our personal morality charts. CW is one such villain. I’d sure as hell slide into her DMs. That’s what the kids say, right?