REVIEW: The Stylist (2020)

dir. Jill Gevargizian.

Working evenings at a Kansas City hair salon Claire (Najarra Townsend) is desperately lonely, her only human contact with the barista who serves her morning coffee and the clients who sit in her chair. As the opening scene shows the latter sometimes comes with a surprising level of disclosure as one woman confides in Claire about her adultery. It’s not because there’s any genuine connection: in fact the lack of connection, the sense of relational alienation, is what creates a safe space, like a Catholic confessional. All this just serves to underscore how separate Claire is from society: even in intimate conversations she is on the outside, playing a role in an imitation of real friendship.

As the client has her hair combed and coloured the store slowly empties and she falls asleep, soothed into unconsciousness by the drugs Claire has slipped into her wine. And without further fuss, Claire carefully scalps her, taking her hair back to a basement full of similar trophies which she tries on, pretending to be the people she’s killed, imagining what it might be like to be someone else.

It’s a hell of an opener, part The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) part One Hour Photo (2002) in its portrayal of the literal wearing of another’s identity and a crushing loneliness in plain sight. The miracle though is that despite such a strong setup Gevargizian only levels up further when Claire discovers a potential genuine friendship with Olivia (Brea Grant, director of 12 Hour Shift), another client who’s approaching her wedding. She is bubbly and warm, and though Claire is initially drafted in to do her wedding hair the prospect of an actual human connection exposes the vulnerability inside Claire to an almost unbearable degree, the physical peeling of others flipped to the psychological evisceration she experiences as her deepest needs for human love are laid bare. Like Travis Bickle in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Claire simply does not know how to relate to others.

The Stylist is a work of honest, aching pain, and as with the comparable Carrie (1976) the impact comes more from the emotional desperation of an outsider wanting to belong rather than the bloody violence. As Claire obsesses over what text messages to send, wonders why she hasn’t had a reply, and in one particularly excruciating moment attends Olivia’s hen do, it is the emotional violence – inflicted by others but also on herself – which breaks the heart. In this Townsend is exceptional, her imploding sense of self beautifully understated in her furtive eyes and nervous hands.

Based on her 2016 short, Gevargizian has delivered a phenomenal feature and, from the shocking opener to devastating climax, it is one of the very best of the year: God’s lonely hair dresser.

Tim Coleman

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