Hairdressing is one of those professions, much like bartending or taxi drivers, where clients feel like they can unburden themselves, revealing details of their personal lives under a cloak of anonymity, things they would never say to people they know. This provides the premise for Jill Gevargizian’s debut feature The Stylist, based on her short film of the same name, featuring a murderous hairdresser who insinuates herself into the life of one of her clients.
Claire (Najarra Townsend) is a hairdresser who has trouble relating to people, struggling through the most mundane social interactions. She also has an unfortunate tendency to murder her clients and scalp them. As you do. Her situation is complicated by an emergency request from a regular client, Olivia (Brea Grant) who needs a stylist for her upcoming wedding. As she gets to know Olivia better, and misinterprets her naturally friendly personality for something deeper, Claire oversteps boundaries in a series of awkward encounters, building towards a potentially fatal outcome.
It’s a languorously paced film, with very little in the way of plot – which does make the film feel a little padded in places. Despite this, Gevargizian clearly knows how to tell a story – In an early scene we see Claire in her basement surrounded by the scalps of her victims. It’s an unnerving and neat way to highlight how many she’s already killed by the start of the film. The sequences where Claire styles her clients’ hair are shot lavishly, and have a hypnotic feel to them. Combined with the ambient score, this gives the film a dreamlike quality that often turns into a nightmare.
Najarra Townsend is excellent, and incredibly convincing in the scenes where she tries to pass herself off as a ‘normal’ person, and can’t quite manage it. Her performance is brilliantly untethered from reality, but subtle – it’s just about plausible that she has gone undetected for so long. She’s obviously a bit odd, but because she’s beautiful and at least semi-functioning, nobody seems suspicious of her. The only time she drops this persona is when she wears the scalps of her victims, adopting the personality of their respective owners, which is conveyed with disturbing intensity by Townsend.
While the violence might sound similar to Franck Khalfoun‘s Maniac, the execution is clinical and measured, and more reminiscent of George Franju‘s seminal Eyes Without A Face. We are shown the scalping’s in precise detail, and there’s no cutting away at the crucial moment, which makes Claire seem even more unhinged than if she was killing her victims in a frenzied attack. Like her painful social interactions, her murders are an uncomfortable combination of awkward and deeply unpleasant – particularly when they don’t go according to plan.
The problems arise in scenes where we are asked to identify with Claire, but as she is a serial killer that’s quite a tricky needle to thread. Townsend is great but the character is so underdeveloped that it’s impossible to fully empathise with her. When she’s unable to connect with Olivia and her friends, and has trouble articulating her feelings, this is relatable, but then you’re reminded that she is a murderer, and any sympathy just fizzles out. Her obsession with Olivia and her murderous urges seem to have very little to do with each other, and it makes her character seem muddled. Frustratingly the film seems aware of this disconnect, as we see a Missing Person poster for one of Claire’s victims, as if to remind you that she’s a murderer, despite the fact that we’re expected to sympathise with her in the following scene.
The Stylist is just about held together by Townsend’s engaging performance, and the cringiness of her attempts to be friends with Olivia is palpable, but ultimately there’s not quite enough story to warrant the feature length running time. More macabre than scary, and certainly not your run-of-the-mill slasher, it nevertheless has a pervasively creepy atmosphere that lingers long after the film has ended, and the final gut punch is truly disturbing.