We are thrust immediately into the lion’s den of a regional hairdressing competition in the first few minutes of Thomas Hardiman’s debut feature, Medusa Deluxe. While it may not appear to be a dramatic event on the surface, the favourite to win Mosca has been discovered scalped, and Hardiman wastes no time in including us in the speculation about who may have done it.
Hardiman introduces us to this society with a furious confrontation between Cleve (Clare Perkins), a hairdresser with obvious anger issues who believes this is her year, and Divine (Kayla Meikle), a quiet, God-fearing rival. If competing in a British regional hairstyling competition doesn’t sound appealing on paper, Hardiman dispels that impression right away.
To be honest, the mystery at the heart of Hardiman’s debut isn’t the most fascinating aspect of the film; it’s the manner the tale is conveyed. We learn that any of these people, including the event’s organiser Rene (Darrell D’Silva), who used to be Mosca’s lover, the mysterious security guard Gac (Heider Ali), and Timba (Anita-Joy Uwajeb), the model Mosca was working on right before he died, are capable of such things as we meet them.
The structure of Medusa Deluxe, though, is what makes it captivating, as Hardiman and cinematographer Robbie Ryan (The Favourite, Marriage Story) convey this story in a single take or the illusion of one.
As Hardiman delves into this enigma, he transfers us from one important player to the next, as they each embark on their own backstage travels during the tournament, which has been sensibly postponed this year. It’s similar to Slacker but with scalping and more fascinating hair. While the cuts are obvious, as there are plenty of possibilities for clever ones within the dark corridors and locked doors, it’s one of the more effective attempts to construct a picture that seems like it was shot in one take.
This method works really well once all of the characters have been introduced and we begin to hear about their betrayals, long-held grudges, and secrets. Especially since, after all of this is done, the direction becomes more innovative and bold, and the one-shot gimmick becomes more and more amazing.
While Hardiman’s approach to the murder mystery is innovative, especially for his first film, it is not without limits. While immersing us in the dynamics of this group is an excellent method to immerse us in this universe, it also takes some time for us to gather our bearings on what is truly going on. This option is shocking at first, but as the first shock wears off, the viewer is left to piece the puzzle together.
Medusa Deluxe will also periodically show us scenes from the past and future, which would make sense in a more conventionally presented plot, but in this format, it can be a little confusing at first. The form matches the story for the bulk of Medusa Deluxe, and while these moments are among of the film’s most fascinating, they don’t quite fit into the pattern this picture is putting up.
The ensemble of over-the-top characters in Medusa Deluxe adds to the story’s appeal. Clare Perkins, who plays the caustic yet highly gifted Cleve, is unquestionably the star in this film. Throughout Medusa Deluxe, Perkins initially leads us to assume that Cleve is the major perpetrator but gradually exposes that she may have a legitimate basis for her rage. Cleve begins the film at an 11 and, despite the fact that his performance, like the rest of the film, is overblown, we begin to feel pity and empathy for the most dubious character in the cast.
While Hardiman’s writing and direction do not heighten the suspense of the primary mystery, they do an excellent job of establishing the relationships and alliances that have developed among this group through the years of such competitions. As we discover more about the personalities in this hairdressing world, they become considerably more intriguing than Mosca’s murder.
This is especially evident in the third act when we witness that no matter what this group goes through, they remain a remarkably supportive community, despite what they all say in the heat of the moment and in the aftermath of one of their own deaths. By the time Medusa Deluxe comes to its really delightful end credits, which almost have a Beau Travail-esque catharsis to them, it’s difficult not to become engrossed in these people, making you want to start a rewatch right now.
Hardiman’s feature debut is ambitious, even if the overall framework isn’t always successful and the mystery isn’t as absorbing as it could be. Despite its weaknesses, it makes up for them with style and a crazy group of characters. With Medusa Deluxe, Hardiman demonstrates himself to be an intriguing director, and while not everything about his debut movie is perfectly coiffed, there’s enough to enjoy in this murder mystery.