Credit: A24
by Luke Gorham Featured Film Horizon Line

Medusa Deluxe — Thomas Hardiman

August 16, 2023

There’s an undeniable novelty that introduces Thomas Hardiman’s directorial debut, Medusa Deluxe. On its surface, the film promises to be a lively, twisty — quite literally, under the guidance of DP Robbie Ryan — fusion of the limp early-aughts oddity Blow Dry and one of Rian Johnson’s zeitgeisty Knives Out films. Set in the immediate hours before a regional hairstyling competition, a closely connected group of frenemies find that one of their own, Mosca, has been murdered. In fact, he has been scalped, a campy irony that suggests the gleeful direction Hardiman clearly intends. As all whodunits must, Medusa Deluxe takes care to introduce a roster of suspects: there’s event organizer, Rene (Darrell D’Silva), who’s also the deceased’s ex-lover; rival stylists Cleve (Clare Perkins), Devine (Kayla Meikle), and Kendra (Harriet Webb), respectively combustible, religious, and scheming ; a quartet of models, Inez (Kae Alexander), Timba (Anita-Joy Uwajeh), Etsy (Debris Stevenson), and Angie (Lilit Lesser); Mosca’s grieving partner, Angel (Luke Pasqualino); the quiet and clearly distressed security guard, Gac (Heider Ali); and shady associate, Patricio (Nicholas Karimi). In other words, there are plenty of players and motivations to parse, and it doesn’t take long before each and every one of them is casting aspersions and enthusiastically gossipmongering.

Also immediately evident is the film’s governing visual design. Hardiman here lends cinematographer extraordinaire Ryan his opportunity to construct the fake one-take film, his camera endlessly roving hallways and dressing rooms, leaving one conversation and lead for another, fittingly following narrative digressions more so than characters. It’s all seamlessly stitched together, and in tandem with the film’s anxiety-inducing, noise-driven sound design of ratchets and ticking and heels clopping in hallways, the effect isn’t unlike the nimble but heightened affectation of Birdman; less fatal than the empty “grandeur” of the interminable 1917, but absent the elegance of Russian Ark or the subtle nerve-shredding of Boiling Point. Which is to say, Medusa Deluxe is blatantly aestheticized, but working within its arch narrative contexts and negotiating its characters truths and fictions, the choice is largely successful on terms both structural and unapologetically “artistic.” There’s a clear logic to Hardiman’s choice to let the camera stalk through corridors and peer around corners, establishing a surprising linearity amidst all the movement, and using the competition’s trappings to lend a surreality to the core question mark. Particularly early on, it’s thrilling to follow Ryan’s camera as it wends through rooms that can barely contain hairdos, all seemingly bursting out of frame, their unnatural colors and architectures pushing to the sky with Babel-esque ambition.

But even at a brisk-ish 101 minutes, Medusa Deluxe feels undone in short order, with neither an overarching mystery nor individual motivations proving sustainedly compelling to any degree; that lines-long cast of characters (and the discernibly capable performers behind it, particularly the droll Alexander, known best for the BBC Three series Bad Education) is wasted amidst such bland, indistinct development. By the time the intrigue of the film’s niche setting recedes and its potential feels suitably squandered, we’re only a quarter of the way through, and from here Hardiman orchestrates a molasses-slow march to the finish, leaving the film’s “reveals” limp before they’re even delivered. Characters who at first feel sheened, shellacked, and primed for camp play are left to execute a series of increasingly dull divulgences, and none are developed to any degree beyond the broad strokes of their initial introduction. And while there’s no denying the film’s formal brio, even that fails to crescendo in any appetizing way, all impression of appealing garishness left largely to empty luster, like hairspray on a Beatles’ mop-top. Despite the film’s disappointment, Hardiman isn’t likely to go away, and that’s for the best — the conceptual of Medusa Deluxe is plenty spirited, and the director’s formal instincts are undeniable. But in this final form, it’s hard to feel that a short film hasn’t simply sponged up unearned minutes. What ultimately becomes most clear throughout Medusa Deluxe is Hardiman’s blinkered grasp of the murder mystery’s fundamental whimsicality and potential for logistical curlicues. The result is an absent interest in the (de)construction of puzzles, and the genre’s very raison d’être is here sacrificed at the altar of empty aesthetic design.

DIRECTOR: Thomas Hardiman;  CAST: Anita-Joy Uwajeh, Clare Perkins, Darrell D’Silva;  DISTRIBUTOR: A24;  IN THEATERS & STREAMING: August 11;  RUNTIME: 2 hr. 2 min.