Hair is everything. The Fleabag speech about hair and the ways it can change your day and shape your personality is well known on the internet. The Stylist, directed by Jill Gevargizian, originated from a 2016 short of the same name, explores how hair can define who you are beyond your physical appearance in a dark and hypnotic way.
Claire (Najarra Townsend) lives a normal life. She takes her dog out in the mornings. She has an “usual” order at a coffee shop close to her place of work. She loves and is very good at her job as a hairstylist, and when one of her clients proves to have an interesting life and, of course, beautiful hair, she drugs them and cuts off their scalps to take home.
Jill Gevargizian’s debut feature film doesn’t waste time to introduce you to Claire’s gold lit, bloody, strange and vaguely vintage perspective – she takes her first victim before the 10-minute mark – that supports her fantasy. Claire even has a secret murder basement, complete with candles as the only light source and a huge mirror she stares at when she talks to herself in the voices of her victims whilst wearing their hair.
It is a testament not just to Gevargizian’s directing, but to the production design and photography work that the main character’s unique world is shown in such stark contrast to the lives of the women she covets, just as much as their hair, but that still makes sense inside the visual language of the movie. It is a world where you believe that a single human interaction is more nerve-wracking than covering up a homicide.
That is what pulls Claire out of her routine: the possibility of a personal relationship with one of her clients. Olivia (Brea Grant) needs Claire’s talented hands to style her hair for her wedding day that is coming up. Olivia knows the stylist’s work, she admires her, and frequently showers Claire with praise, showing her kindness and attention. Claire for that matter, tries to resist, but ends up addicted to witnessing and being a part of Olivia’s perfect life. She even drops her other unhealthy habit of murder, or at least tries to.
The Stylist’s story has a slow pace that is not for everyone, as it builds on Claire’s anxiety and self-hatred, and not on the gruesomeness of the murders. It is more tense internal character study than action-packed serial killer thriller, and it could very well end up being the single worst thing a thriller can be: boring. But that never happens, because Najarra Townsend takes your hand and carries you through every second of this movie with so much humanity, you can’t help but root for her character to maybe just get away with it.
Such a strong lead also works to highlight the movie’s weakest point, the shallowness of the other characters. It leads you to believe that Olivia and Claire are parallels of each other. Two women with drastically different lives but that can’t run away from feeling lonely, or “interrupted”. Only Olivia never feels more than not quite a person, someone out of reach who you don’t feel for.
Another important factor The Stylist delivers in small, but perfectly-balanced doses, is sexiness, which makes Gevargizian’s homage to erotic thrillers from the past obvious. She shows the act of washing and styling hair to be the most sensual experience. It is also the scene that introduces you to the movie as the campy title sequence (in flowy retro gold font). This is a film that loves its genre tropes and flows with it with reverence. Never crossing the line between the sexy and the exploitative, with a very female perspective behind the camera.
This appreciation of its tropes can make the story predictable at times, which just enhances the tension. You have an idea of what is coming, you feel it in the goosebumps rising in your arms, and yet you are completely powerless to stop it. Just watch as Claire makes bad decision after bad decision – the worst of which is not breaking in into a stranger’s house, but definitely sending a desperate-sounding text message to a possible friend – and just wait for everything to come crashing down.
The Stylist honours its genre, while at the same time delivering something wholly unique. It gives you high doses of anxiety, adrenaline and empathy for a fleshed-out character. It is a feast for the eyes with its highly stylized use of lighting and design. But above all this movie is an interesting and entertaining journey into the dark corners of a strange and lonely woman’s mind. Jill Gevargizian does not disappoint with her first feature-length movie, as it leaves you, just like Claire, just wanting more and more.