By RACHEL REEVES
Starring Brea Grant, Najarra Townsend and Sarah McGuire
Directed by Jill Gevargizian
Written by Jill Gevargizian, Eric Havens and Eric Stolze
Back in 2016, director Jill Gervargizian swept the festival circuit with her razor-sharp short film about a young, lonely hairstylist with a penchant for taking a little bit too much off the top. The film was fresh, it was well executed and it left audiences immediately wanting more. Thankfully, the time for more has come as Gervargizian welcomes audiences back into the salon with her feature film debut, the expanded version of THE STYLIST.
Recently celebrating its world premiere at Fantastic Fest 2020, THE STYLIST follows a Kansas City hairstylist named Claire, portrayed by Najarra Townsend. After captivating fans in the original short, Townsend’s return to the role is refreshing and a sight for sore eyes. Starting off strong, THE STYLIST wastes no time establishing Claire and her dark habit. As her last client of the night (a from-out-of-town businesswoman) shares intimate secrets with Claire on the premise that she is a stranger, Claire listens patiently as she waits for the drug she slipped into the woman’s wine to kick in. Once she’s sedated, Claire removes the woman’s hair and scalp with expert precision and extra sharp shears. After cleaning up and returning home, Claire ventures to her basement which doubles as a morbid, but beautiful trophy room. Surrounded by various homemade wigs in a variety of shades and lengths, Claire dons her new addition, becoming instantly connected to the character of the previous owner. Though shrouded in shock factor and plenty of top quality practical effects, the subtextual dialogue that occurs in this opening scene is strong and carries through the rest of the film.
Drifting in and out of people’s lives, Claire is consistently interacting with people in intimate, yet brief ways. For anyone who has worked in customer service related industries, it’s a familiar and strange societal dynamic. Claire often offers advice and an open ear to her customers, but only as long as the appointment lasts. Outside of professional setting interactions, these relationships cease, as Claire waits in limbo for the next appointment. This surface-level connection with people can often feel isolating, exacerbating a deeper feeling of loneliness, and it’s one expertly presented through Claire. However, things begin to look up for her as she begins to form a friendship with a client named Olivia.
Played to perfection by Brea Grant, Olivia is a young, spunky professional nearing her impending wedding date. Left high and dry by another hairstylist, Olivia turns to Claire in desperate need of help. With her positive attitude and exciting chaotic energy, Olivia shows an interest in Claire that transcends the typical hairstylist-client relationship. Inviting her over to her house and to her bachelorette party, Olivia gives Claire just enough attention to spark deep-seated feelings that she tries desperately to keep buried. But as Claire’s social anxieties and inner dialogue begin to get the best of her, disturbing shades of her inner self begin to be revealed to both Olivia and the audience alike.
The complexity and range of Claire’s character in collaboration with Olivia is where THE STYLIST truly shines. Strengthened and supported by Robert Patrick Stern’s beautiful cinematography, Olivia becomes a sort of ideal representation of everything Claire wants to be. Confident and strong in one scene while convincingly honest and insecure the next, there’s a genuine ray of authenticity in Grant’s performance that anchors Claire’s world in reality. Similarly removing shades of surreality from the film’s premise is Townsend’s performance as Claire. Consistently outfitted in beautiful clothes and perfectly styled hair, Claire’s compulsions reveal themselves in an organic and story-driven way. Subtly navigating the depths of these anxieties, Townsend further conveys Claire’s constant inner dialogue through carefully controlled facial movements, body language, and stunning outbursts of emotion. In one particular scene, Claire experiences a full-on anxiety attack complete with negative self-talk and mental self-sabotage. Emotionally brutal for anyone who suffers from anxiety to watch, Townsend’s execution is stunningly honest and rooted in realism.
As the film nears its final act, the story leaves a bit of a craving for more from Claire’s character. Shrouded in mystery, Claire’s motivations and history are vague as she adapts her personality to mirror those around her. While the enigmatic nature of her background is fine, it does cause the middle portion of the film to feel a bit stretched for content. However, these issues quickly fade into the background as Claire enters her final descent—including a cameo from Gevargizian herself, proudly wearing a shirt in support of Jenn Wexler’s 2018 film, The Ranger. Culminating in one of the best final acts in modern horror, THE STYLIST becomes a truly unique film that’s part William Lustig, part Brian De Palma, but unequivocally Jill Gevargizian and one of 2020’s best entries in the genre.