‘Medusa Deluxe’ Review: Thomas Hardiman’s Imperfect but Exciting Feature Debut

‘Medusa Deluxe’ Review: Thomas Hardiman’s Imperfect but Exciting Feature Debut

In the world of Medusa Deluxe, beauticians wield scissors like knives and hairsprays like pistols. Hairstyling competitions are fraught spaces stacked with talented participants. Anyone can tame an unruly mane, but only a handful can turn it into a work of art.

“I’m in the middle of a Georgian fontange,” one stylist snaps in the opening scene of Thomas Hardiman’s exciting directorial debut. “You can’t just walk away from that shit.” Tensions are high in this dressing room. Outside the door, police patrol the hall. Sirens blare in the distance. The death of Mosca (John Alan Roberts), one of the stylists, has paused the competition and forced a temporary lockdown.

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Medusa Deluxe

The Bottom Line

Mesmerizing, even though it doesn’t stick the landing.

Release date: Friday, Aug. 11
Cast: Luke Pasqualino, Lilit Lesser, Clare Perkins, Kayla Meikle, Debris Stevenson, Heider Ali
Director-screenwriter: Thomas Hardiman

Rated R,
1 hour 41 minutes

The atmosphere is thick with suspicion. This is a cutthroat bunch, a community whose members convene annually to flaunt their skills and prove themselves. There are public alliances and private allegiances. Betrayals abound, too. Everyone has a theory. All of them are suspects.

Back in the dressing room, the camera stays close to the stylist working on the fontange, circling her as she snips and shapes. Her name is Cleve, and she is played by an exceptional Clare Perkins, whose delivery is barbed and steely. She wants to know how long they will be stuck in this room, trapped in this building. She thinks this is all an act and that the dead stylist — a known adversary of hers — is an idiot.

The beautician working beside her doesn’t agree, but her responses are subdued. Divine (Kayla Meikle) munches in the corner, texturing Cleve’s monologue with ad libs: The “Mhm” and “That’s terrible” become a kind of conversational refrain. I could listen to these two, and many of the other characters in Medusa Deluxe, all day — they are a distinctive group, a fascinating gallery of characters in Hardiman’s meandering whodunit.

Medusa Deluxe is a formal feat first and a murder mystery second. The film is shot in a continuous take and the camera, handled by DP Robbie Ryan, is a wily interlocutor. We enter and exit rooms by following people through halls, trailing them as they wind through corridors and barge into different corners of this nondescript building. Furtively exchanged looks and weighted conversations introduce us to different characters. It’s a game of hot potato, with our attention being passed around.

Hardiman wrote the screenplay, and his story starts off strong. Cleve, the abrasive stylist who hurls insults with the same precision as she cuts hair, kicks off the action. This is undoubtedly Perkins’ film. She adds a humorous bent to her character’s prickliness, but she never lets her guard down. She keeps Cleve’s intentions, motivations and allegiances close to the chest, making her one of the strongest characters in Medusa Deluxe.

This isn’t to say that the other stylists aren’t giving. Medusa Deluxe is saved from its own potential waywardness by a series of stellar performances. The cast animates the strange, disquieting world of beauticians who describe their craft in profound, almost holy terms.

When Angie (Lilit Lesser), the model whose hair Cleve is working on, asks to take her break, she brings us with her. The camera stays on the half-complete metal mass sitting atop her head as she checks in on the other models. Angie walks in on Timba (Anita-Joy Uwajeh) telling Kendra (a sharp Harriet Webb), a stylist, and two other models, Inez (Kae Alexander) and Etsy (Debris Stevenson), about stumbling upon the dead body. “I was thinking this is where I should scream, but nothing is coming,” Timba says, wrapped in a metallic orange smock.

The camera snakes through the room, registering the characters as they sit rapt by Timba’s story. Even in their incomplete states, the models’ hair (styled by Scarlett O’Connell) gestures at the perfectionism and adeptness of these beauticians.

When Timba speaks, the camera closes in on her face. We watch her eyes scan the room and her mouth twitch when she recounts how the body had been scalped. Each interaction among the models and stylists — and later with the head of the competition Rene (Darrell D’Silva), Mosca’s partner Angel (Luke Pasqualino) and even the facility’s security guard Gac (Heider Ali) — adds a new layer of anxiety.

For a while, Medusa Deluxe is all nerve and suspense. Hardiman deftly ratchets up the narrative tension, and each performance sustains our suspicions. The more we learn about the intra-group dynamics, the less trustworthy and stable each person’s alibi becomes.

But the story starts to wobble as Medusa Deluxe approaches its conclusion. An oddly deflating mood creeps into the film. All the stalking and roving starts to play like a distraction. I wondered: Who are these people? Where is this going? Hardiman’s characters begin to feel a bit thin, their grievances repetitive. I wished for a looser film — one not so constrained by its formal experiment.

But by the time we’ve met all the players and gotten a sense of their motivations — both obvious and hidden — Hardiman has proven himself. There are enough clever transitions and sleek handoffs to keep you engaged, to make you trust him and wonder what will happen next. With Medusa Deluxe, we’re watching the director craft his own Georgian fontange. We know better than to walk away.