THE STYLIST *** USA 2020 Dir: Jill Gevargizian. 105 mins
A sleek-looking, character-driven thriller adapted from co-writer / director Jill Gevargizian’s short 2016 film of the same name, this unfolds like a distaff riff on the “God’s Lonely Man” post-TAXI DRIVER sequence of modern American horror films. Though superbly acted and shot (by Robert Patrick Stern), its echoes of both versions of MANIAC (1980/2012), amongst others, give it a second hand feel despite the gender switch of the protagonist.
Najarra Townsend, the best thing about the CONTRACTED films, is excellent in a reprisal of her role from the original short. She is Claire, a socially awkward stylist whose clients often have more interesting, conventionally “successful” lives than she. They often tell her intimate secrets on the proviso that they are unlikely to see her again. After the title appears on screen, we are afforded a glimpse of Claire’s own double life and bear witness to her scalping a murdered client, the hair piece joining others that she occasionally wears when not adorning MANIAC-style mannequin heads.
Townsend captures this young woman’s loneliness and her numbing, solitary routine in a vivid, empathetic characterisation. The hope of a proper friendship provided by the wedding hairdo request of a regular client, Olivia (Brea Grant, also superb), gives her a window into this popular, successful woman’s life and enough confidence to share some secrets of her own. In the background, murmurs of missing persons and a funeral donation jar at the coffee house Claire frequents capture the impact of her crimes on the community – while the physical details of Claire scrubbing at stains on her shoes and clothing display a killer hiding in plain sight.
It’s a good looking picture, with the stylistic choices immersing us in the life of a woman barely holding it together – while forcing us to share the cruel experience of Claire eavesdropping on a bathroom conversation with fellow, bitchy bachelorette party guests. The intensity, however, is weakened by overlength and repetition and, despite its refreshing female-driven slant, the story amounts to little more than a derivative hybrid of MANIAC’s Frank Zito and SINGLE WHITE FEMALE’s Hedra without the impact of either. There are striking moments, both with echoes of earlier films: a disturbing reversal of Julia Roberts’ cathartic dressing-up montage in SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY and a STEPFATHER II-style perversion of a wedding ceremony that provides THE STYLIST with a startling final image.
Review by Steven West