The Stylist (2020)

The Stylist first published by

“I guess we all want what we don’t have,” says Claire (Najarra Townsend), admiring her hair in the mirror near the beginning of The Stylist. Except that it is not really her hair, and these are not even her words. For so damaged, so empty, is Claire”s sense of her own identity, that she compulsively absorbs and appropriates the words and observations that clients casually share with her at the Kansas City salon where she works – and when her colleagues are not around to see, she drugs and scalps her clients too, so that she can, in the privacy of her basement, wear their hair as a wig while she recycles their lines in her own voice. This particular line, taken over from the now dead philandering graphic designer Sarah (Jennifer Seward), echoes with irony as it expresses perfectly Claire’s own deep dissatisfaction with herself and her frustrated desire to become somebody else – and so, in her secret cellar, she keeps a collection of other people’s grisly guises and phrases into which she can furtively slip at will. Like all of us, but also very much in her own peculiar way, Claire wants what she doesn’t have.

In other words, Claire is a female counterpart to Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) in William Lustig’s Maniac (1980). It is not just the human scalps that she keeps on dummies in her inner sanctum, but also her centred humanity. For unlike the serial killers in so many other slashers, Claire is a real living, breathing (but notably not heavy-breathing) flesh-and-blood character with whom we sympathise, even empathise, in spite, or perhaps because, of her many fatal (at least for others) flaws. It is all too easy to identify with Claire’s craving to be loved, or just to be noticed, even as we deplore her deranged, destructive method of accomplishing precisely those ends. 

When one of Claire’s regular clients, Olivia (Brea Grant), asks her to step in at short notice as hair stylist for her wedding, the normally invisible Claire finds herself, at least for the time being, needed, befriended, even invited into Olivia’s inner circle and home. Seeing Claire and Olivia in split screen, going about their similar day-to-day activities, establishes a symmetry between these two women – both abandoned at an early age by their father, both yearning to be seen for who they are. Yet far from being equals, Claire and Olivia are employee and employer, connected almost entirely by the professional service that Claire is providing. So when, like a demanding puppydog (with stalker tendencies), Claire fixates on Olivia and embarks on an awkward relationship whose nuances she is too emotionally immature to understand, she misconstrues Olivia’s friendliness and entirely ordinary wedding jitters for something more, and enters the delusional belief that Olivia will leave her fiancé Charlie (David DeRock) to be with Claire herself forever. This attempt by Claire to have a normal relationship, undermined by her own unsteady grip on reality, also recalls Frank Zito from Maniac, as we are torn between willing lonely, broken Claire on at last to get what she wants, and knowing that this can never end well because her desires are so errant and unhinged.   

Expanded by Jill Gevargizian from her 2016 short film of the same name, with Townsend reprising her rôle (and mostly wearing the same signature yellow dress), The Stylist is, in keeping with the profession of its protagonist, made up to look its absolute best. From the opening credits sequence of intimate, impressionistic soft-focus close-ups which the viewer must put together to get the bigger picture, to the candle-lit classicism and otherworldly allure of Claire’s basement, to the night club interiors coloured and illuminated like a giallo, the film shows a painstaking attention to the superficies of beauty, even as Claire imagines that she can cover over the cracks of her core being with the skin-deep appearances that she steals from others. 

To suggest that this is a case of style over substance would be to ignore the interplay here between the two, as a void of a woman struggles vainly to build a reality from mere appearance. Her failure is the film’s success. For as in Lucky McKee’s May (2002), here we are witnessing a woman trying to form a perfect marriage between the world and her own psychotic beliefs, perceptions and yearnings, and the result, albeit not pretty, comes with its own very special elegance. While The Stylist is unquestionably a horror film, it is also a strange, warped kind of romance, as its heroine finds a way, even if only for an instant, to escape her imperfect self and to become her ideal, in an ending which is simultaneously triumphant and tragic. 

Summary: Jill Gevargizian’s superlative psychodrama marries a deranged stylist to her client in a messy union.

© Anton Bitel