The Stylist is streaming on Arrow Player from 1 March

As a professional hairdresser herself, director Jill Gevargizian knows the sometimes instantaneous intimacy that can exist between the person under the cape and the other one hovering behind them with a sharp object in hand.

In the opening scene of The Stylist there’s a sly acknowledgment of that connection, as the ill-fated client confesses to an extramarital affair before remarking how odd it is to be able to divulge her secret to a stranger. Unfortunately, the woman in the chair has wrongly assumed this temporary intimacy is a benign one. Instead, the cut she receives after confiding in the protagonist of The Stylist is not the kind she requested.

A good deal more blood will be spilled in the rest of Gevargizian’s first feature (an expansion of a 2016 short of the same name). Yet it’s much to her film’s benefit that the filmmaker is less interested in orchestrating Argento-styled displays of ultra-violence than in scrutinising the fumbled social interactions and barely suppressed anxieties that plague the scissor-wielding Claire.

The Stylist (2021)

As played by Najarra Townsend – an American indie-horror regular since her similarly affecting performance in the otherwise repugnant Contracted (2013) – Claire initially seems to be cut from the same cloth as Jennifer Jason Leigh’s villainous roommate in Single White Female (1992), which remains an outlier in genre cinema as the story of a woman targeted by another woman.

But unlike Barbet Schroeder’s hit or its more lurid descendants, such as Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon (2016), Gevargizian’s film largely declines to emphasise psychosexual aspects of the killer’s obsessive fixations. Even when Claire slips into Olivia’s bedroom and uses a sex toy she finds, the act seems born of loneliness and curiosity. Also telling is Claire’s bewildered response to the kind and mildly flirty manner of the woman who serves her coffee every morning, and who soon becomes another victim.

Claire’s ambition is not to exact dominance over another but to fully annihilate herself. The image of her donning one of her gruesome wigs is not only a nod to the skin-suit fashion statements made famous by Leatherface in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs (1991) but a chilling metaphor for less lethal and more familiar forms of self-erasure and self-reinvention.

Along with Townsend’s nervy performance, Gevargizian’s astute writing makes it easier to forgive her film’s issues with pacing and plausibility. What with Claire’s cavalier attitude to the usual rules for movie serial-killers about not murdering known associates or dispatching victims in their workplaces, audiences must assume that Kansas City detectives are awfully slow on the uptake. But nor do those flaws make it any less satisfying to see Gevargizian’s Miss Lonelyhearts beam over her chance to enjoy a big church wedding, albeit with her final victim’s bloody scalp as part of her ensemble.

Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.