Director: Jill Gevargizian
Stars: Najarra Townsend, Brea Grant, Sarah McGuire
Claire (Najarra Townsend) is a lonely hair stylist eager to provide immaculate service to her clients, but who feels alienated from the urban landscape around her. Her position at the lower end of the beauty industry makes her work a commodity, but she clearly wishes the connections were more personal. And while she seems outwardly like a polite, benign presence, this masks an incredibly warped perspective on reality, one too-far-gone even from the moment we meet her.
In the long, bravura opening scene of The Stylist, we watch a typical interaction between Claire and a customer (Jennifer Seward) as the salon empties out for closing time. Claire is attentive, and the workplace takes on the feel of a confessional. Claire’s very anonymity makes her the perfect canvas for her client’s secret admissions. Something personal is shared here. And then, having drugged the unassuming woman before her, Claire methodically removes her scalp.
The Stylist introduces us, then, to a female serial killer who hides in plain sight. However, that she is hidden is part of the problem. Claire wants desperately to fit in with the world but she just doesn’t seem to tessellate. The scalps she takes are more than mere trophies; in a coven-like basement, she sits before a dresser and wears them as wigs, taking on the personas of her victims. Its a desperately sad study of a woman playing dress-up in roles that she finds unattainable.
The main body of the picture chronicles her relationship with bride-to-be Olivia (Brea Grant); a professional acquaintance that Claire dreams of kindling into genuine friendship. Though she appears meek, Claire’s moods swing violently when she feels negated, and she has no qualms about invading personal spaces if she deems it her right.
Jill Gevargizian mounts a sleek, slick and boldly empathetic production, urging us to relate to Claire even as she acts murderously to those around her. The Stylist echoes Psycho in that regard, and there are some parallels between Gevargizian’s Claire and Norman Bates, particularly when it comes to the role of costuming in their psychopathologies. Both characters feel overwhelmed by the world, timid and vulnerable – wolves in sheep’s clothing that we almost can’t help but pity for their sad lives.
In keeping with her title, Gevargizian ensures that her picture looks divine. Her frames are well studied, and the lighting throughout is just too dreamy, from the golden sense of safety and security Claire finds in her warped little dungeon, to the bold Argento-esque interiors of a local nightclub.
The Stylist is something of a slow-burn, deliberately so. It may feel it in the moment, but this sense of space within the film cannily echoes the emptiness that Claire feels in her own life. Wide shots of her confronting Olivia atop a multi-storey parking lot, for instance, frame them both as small against the vast city, evoking emptiness even within supposedly busy spaces.
Because there isn’t a driving momentum to the picture, it can feel it’s length (a not-demanding 105 minutes or so), but The Stylist is a film than expands in the viewer’s mind as it settles. Townsend and Gevargizian ensure that it is eminently watchable in the moment (Townsend is great, for the record), but The Stylist reveals more of itself as you sit with it after, provoking ponderances long after its credits rolls.
Gevargizian’s shock denouement is expertly orchestrated; something that’s especially impressive considering how inevitable it feels for over half the picture. The finale of The Stylist isn’t surprising per se, but the ceremony and showmanship involved perfectly fits the setting, and stamps this debut feature with an iconic horror moment. In it we are invited to ruminate on the toxicity of a culture which breeds desire for so-called aspirational lifestyles.