Producers: Michael Elliott, Louise Palmkvist Hansen and Lee Groombridge   Director: Thomas Hardiman   Screenplay: Tom Hardiman   Cast: Luke Pasqualino, Lilit Lesser, Clare Perkins, Kayla Meikle, Debris Stevenson, Heider Ali, Kae Alexander, Harriet Webb, Nicholas Karimi, Darrell D’Silva, Anita-Joy Uwajeh, Logan and James Porter, John Roberts, Estelle Digridi, Victory Peal Maburutse, Mitesh Soni, Michelle Parker, Isabella-Rae Royle, Joshua Royle, Nina Anderson and Dawn Royle   Distributor: A24

Grade: C-

Thomas Hardiman’s debut feature is advertised as a murder mystery, and to be fair it does involve a dead body, lots of speculation about who killed the deceased, and the revelation of the perpetrator and motive at the end.  But anyone looking for an old-fashioned “Knives Out”-style whodunit will be sorely disappointed.  “Medusa Deluxe” is less a narrative than an exercise in snappy dialogue and cinematic style, both of which overwhelm what might have been an enjoyable riff on formula in an unusual setting.  One can admire some of the performances and especially the virtuoso camerawork of cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who shoots the film (with an occasional assist from editor Fouad Gaber) to make it look like a single uninterrupted take, but otherwise this “Medusa” deserves the unhappy fate of its namesake from Greek mythology (she was decapitated, of course; the victim here is scalped).

As for that victim, he’s Mosca (John Alan Roberts), the odds-on favorite to win the hairstyling competition at which the plot is set.  His death, and the rumors swirling about it, are the focus of conversation among the organizers and other competitors.  The opening scene focuses on two of the latter—Cleve (Clare Perkins), who rambles on snarkily about her murdered rival as she continues constructing a flamboyant Georgian fontange on her model Angie (Lilit Lesser), and born-again Christian Divine (Kayla Meikle), who mumbles sympathetically from the sidelines as Ryan’s camera swirls around them all in an extravagantly choreographed dance.  They’re occasionally interrupted by hulking security guard Gac (Heider Ali), whose bald pate contrasts with the beautifully coiffured people around him; he needs to borrow some wipes, with which he cleans a red stain from the door of his locker.

Angie asks to take a break, and the camera follows her as she walks down the hall to another styling room where she encounters a second model, Timba (Anita-Joy Uwajeh), who’s telling Kendra (Harriet Webb), another stylist, and two more models, Inez (Kae Alexander) and Etsy (Debris Stevenson), about finding Mosca’s body.  In due course we’re also introduced to the competition’s distraught organizer Rene (Darrell D’Silva), tasked with notifying Mosca’s partner Angel (Luke Pasqualino), who arrives with Pablo (James and Logan Porter), the infant the two men shared, of the tragedy.

There are bits and pieces here that can be taken as clues to a solution to the overarching whodunit—that red stain on Gac’s locker, the revelation that Cleve once broke a bottle of conditioner on Mosca’s head during an altercation, the suggestion that Kendra might have been colluding with Rene about fixing the contest’s outcome—but the mystery supposedly guiding the narrative really plays second-fiddle to the depiction of the competitive, backstabbing nature of the stylists’ world and, even more importantly, the one-take conceit that has Ryan’s not-so-Steadycam endlessly following characters down hallways and flights of stairs, up and down in elevators, across parking lots and to the street outside.  The venomous nature of the relationships is intriguing to a degree, but since none of the characters are ever fleshed out beyond a sketch level, it resonates no more than the murder plot (which ends, frankly, in a rather ludicrous whimper), despite the fact that some of the performances—Perkins’ in particular—have considerable volatility.

That leaves the look of the film—in terms of the camerawork, not the drab production design of Gary Williamson)—its raison d’être, and it’s not enough.  There are so many shots of the backs of figures as they walk from place to place that the effect soon grows tedious, although the booming electronic score by Koreless tries to infuse them with a sense of foreboding and propulsion.  (The only genuine suspense comes from wondering whether Angie, for example, can negotiate a stairwell with Cleve’s monumental fontange on her head, or whether one of the Porters will act up and ruin a take.)  If the real-time conceit energized the narrative, it would be different; as it is, it just comes across as a stunt—cosmetically impressive but purely arbitrary and unnecessary.

Speaking of cosmetics, though, one does have to acknowledge the quality of the hairdos supplied by Scarlett O’Connell, Eugene Souleiman and their supporting artisans, and the accompanying costumes worn by the models, designed by Cynthia Lawrence-John.  The latter get showcased not only in the on-stage competition sequence, but in the group dance to Koreless’ music by the cast, outfitted in glistening matching suits and dresses, during the final credits. 

But that appendage merely emphasizes how empty an exercise in technique “Medusa Deluxe” is.  Like the fontange so painstakingly crafted by Cleve, the movie ends up a totally superficial piece of work with absolutely nothing going on under the surface, but lots of visual pizzazz designed to disguise the fact.