Fantastic Fest 2020 Review: THE STYLIST, An Undeniably Beautiful and Gruesome Debut Feature From Jill Gevargizian
For millions of women around the world, there are very few more powerful people in their lives than their hair stylist. There's something about the transformative powers of a great haircut and styling that can change anyone's perspective and self-image within a matter of hours in ways that not many other experiences can. Even Morrissey, before he turned into a loony racist, articulated this power in The Smiths' classic, "Hairdresser on Fire":
Can you squeeze me
Into an empty page of your diary
And psychologically save me
I've got faith in you
I sense the power
Within the fingers
Within an hour the power
Could totally destroy me
(Or, it could save my life)
Such is the life of Claire (Najarra Townsend), the timid but talented titular Stylist in director Jill Gevargizian's debut feature. Claire is a bit of an odd duck, a hairstylist with an incredible grasp of her craft, but a tenuous grasp on social interaction and a strange hobby of collecting scalps from women and keeping them in a super creepy basement trophy room. None of this is a spoiler, in fact, we see Claire collect her latest totem before the credits even finish rolling, but the question soon becomes, "why"?
Socially and emotionally stunted, Claire's ability to engage with the world around her is severely hindered by an incredibly irrational sense of inferiority. So profound is her disassociation with the real world, that even when a potential new friend enters the mix, she's unable to successfully navigate even the most basic rituals of friendship without her anxiety causing several rather nasty side effects to help her cope.
Claire is sought out by Brea Grant's Olivia to fix a "wedding hair emergency", and the two seem to hit it off, or so Claire thinks. In reality, Olivia is so grateful for Claire saving her from becoming a wedding-hair-don't that she winds up befriending her awkward stylist, inadvertently inviting this unstable woman into her very stable life, much to her own detriment.
When Claire starts to read into Olivia's friendly overtures a bit too closely, her mental state's deterioration starts to accelerate, leaving an ugly blood bath in its wake. Olivia's friends start to sense that there's something not quite right about this new member of the bride's inner circle, but will they be able to save her before it's too late?
True to its title, The Stylist is nothing if not impeccably mounted and well executed. Cinematographer Robert Patrick Stern's camera lingers over every exquisite detail in the production design of Sarah Sharp and art direction of Amelia Reeves, all directed with aplomb by Gevargizian, who may be making her feature debut, but clearly knows the world in which she's working. An expansion of a 2016 short that made waves on the festival circuit, The Stylist takes full advantage of the feature format to flesh out the world and themes of its source material, and beautifully so.
Gevargizian draws clear influences from numerous horror classics, adding her own perspective to make The Stylist stand apart from its obvious antecedents. Claire shares obsessions with Maniac's Frank Zito (Joe Spinell), Angela Bettis's May, Silence of the Lambs' Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), and many others. Taking pieces of her victims as a way to experience their lives from within, Claire is a classic horror movie killer, but Gevargizian and her writers, Eric Havens and Eric Stolze, give their heroine (?) a lot more room to breathe and develop as a sympathetic character, even as she scalps her way through her best friend's bridal party.
It's no stretch to say that the director casting a feminine eye on this traditionally masculine story - all three of the above films were written and directed by men - makes a substantial difference in the way the subject is treated. Whereas most villains of Claire's ilk are fairly one sided and under-developed, we are given plenty of opportunity to live with our lead character, through the good times and the bad and understand they way her social anxiety has adversely affected her mental state. As Claire repeatedly types out text messages to he potential BFF, only to delete them without sending for fear of saying the wrong thing, we see just how fragile her state is, that she can't afford herself the leeway to make mistakes, for fear that the next one might be the last and she'd be alone again.
It's a tragic story of a woman who sees lives that she views as perfect flowing all around her but completely out of her reach, so she grabs at whatever tangible evidence of the possibility of happiness she can get. It just happens in her case that this equates to a dank basement full of perfectly coiffed scalps on mannequin heads. Creepy, but understandable in a way. Najarra Townsend embodies the role's fragility and delicate mental state beautifully, delivering a performance that she's worked very hard to hone.
While it may be not quite perfect - the film feels a tiny bit indulgent at just north of 100 minutes - The Stylist in nonetheless a stellar debut from Gevargizian and her team, and a sign that she's a name to watch in the coming years. While a lot of debut features seem unfocused due to fledgling filmmakers' tendency to want to put all of their thoughts on screen for fear of never getting another chance, Gevargizian's focus and relatively soft touch with the material is commendable. She knows the story she wants to tell and she makes sure that it takes center stage and the film is all the better for it.