Medusa Deluxe Review: A One-Take Murder-Mystery Killer Hair

Medusa Deluxe. Image Courtesy of A24.
Medusa Deluxe. Image Courtesy of A24. /

Between Glass Onion, A Haunting in Venice, and Netflix’s cleverly titled Murder Mystery, there’s no doubt that the art of the kill (and the killer reveal) is as popular among filmmakers as ever. Bringing regional English energy and artistic flare to a classic premise is A24’s latest stab at the murder-mystery genre, Medusa Deluxe, a beauty-infused one-take film from first-time writer-director Thomas Hardiman. Though it may struggle to stick the narrative landing, Medusa Deluxe’s unrelenting pace, thoughtful production design, and breathtaking performances make it an unorthodox but much-welcome addition to the whodunit cannon.

Starring Clare Perkins, Harriet Webb, and Darrell D’Silva, Medusa Deluxe follows the participants of a regional English hairstyling competition, whose cutthroat rivalries take a decidedly morbid turn when a frontrunner turns up dead moments before judging is set to begin. As tensions rise and simmering resentments boil to the service, both the contestants and the audience are thrown headfirst into a tightly wound murder mystery, where discovering the identity of the killer at times comes second to figuring out who would’ve won, had judging commenced.

The most pervasively fascinating of Medusa Deluxe is its camerawork—shot by Robbie Ryan, Medusa Deluxe is (or at least, emulates the feeling of) a single continuous shot for its nearly two-hour runtime. Certainly, such an ambitious stylistic choice could make for an exhausting viewing experience or even an aimless one without the right variables in place, but for the most part, Medusa Deluxe can bend the one-shot style to its will, not the other way around.

Undoubtedly, one of the most crucial elements in pulling off the one-take is Medusa Deluxe’s keenly developed sense of space: the film follows its frantic gaggle of heroes through the winding corridors and dingy basements of a massive warehouse/performance space. Location manager Heather Gant struck gold with this building— the perfect balance between giving Ryan’s camera enough space to move and feel active, while at the same time maintaining the dark, menacing corners and narrow halls required for a true murder mystery.

Of course, though, a camera and a good location are nothing without characters to fill the frame, and that’s the other great strength of Medusa Deluxe: its cast. Made up of mostly unknown English actors, there is a camaraderie and truthfulness in the ensemble of Medusa Deluxe that makes the entire film feel that much more visceral and honest. It’s often easy to forget you’re watching actors—between the unrelenting proximity of the camera and the naturalistic dialogue and delivery, these characters come to life as very messy, fully realized people, not just potential suspects on a rap sheet.

Leading the charge is Clare Perkins as Cleve, an extraordinarily talented hairstylist with a hairpin trigger to her ferocious temper. The film opens with a mesmerizing monologue from Cleve in the early moments when another character calls her “volatile”, prompting her to spiral into a rant that remains one of the film’s most memorable moments. Perkins, of course, has all the requisite intensity and fury to make for a believably intimidating figure in the competition, but what’s more amazing is how quickly she’s able to flip it on and off—incensed one moment, laid back and joking the next.

There’s also a familiar vulnerability to Perkins’ performance that makes the character so relatable and affecting even in her most inelegant moments—the painful sincerity of an artist who has worked so hard on something for so long, and wants nothing more than to be recognized and acknowledged for her hard work and talent. If anything, Cleve’s greatest flaw in the film is how underused she is. Though her whopper of a rant opens the film, she becomes more of a tertiary player as the story begins to truly develop, and what a shame it is to sideline such an incredible performer.

Cleve is rivals with the no-nonsense Kendra (Webb), another hairstylist whose close ties to competition organizer Rene (D’Silva) land her in hot water once rumor begins to spread that she may be buying her way to a win. Kendra, like Cleve, has a backbone of steel, and watching these characters clash is endlessly fascinating. Still, when she’s not delivering stone-cold explanations of how easy it might be to scalp someone, Webb (like Perkins) also brings humanity and tenderness—through her, it comes in the forms of taking care of an infant who becomes a human hot potato heading into act three.

Rounding out the core trio of stylists is Kayla Meikle as Divine, a contestant whose recent part-time work assisting a mortician has steeled (or so she says) her nerves when it comes to seeing dead bodies. Her solution for strengthening her stomach in the face of death—a new and intense connection to religion— drives a wedge between her and the rest of the stylists, and as the film progresses, her status as the serene “voice of reason” is continually called into question. Though she may not be as quick on the draw as Cleve or Kendra, Divine is yet another deliciously complex character, brought to life by yet another wonderfully raw performance from Meikle.

It isn’t just the hairstylists that make up the cast, either—the other half of Medusa Deluxe’s sizable ensemble is comprised of the models on whom the stylists craft their whimsical hairdos. Anita Joy-Uwajeh holds court as Timba, the model of the deceased contestant and the first person to discover the body post-murder, and though she may not get a ton of screentime, she certainly makes the most of it. Model/wannabe sleuth Inez (Kae Alexander) gets her fair share of pulse-pounding moments as she gets close to unraveling the mystery, but it’s Lilit Lesser as the nervous, wide-eyed Angie who ends the emotional core among the models.

But while it has a bakers’ dozen of talented, complex women to draw from Medusa Deluxe’s greatest flaw is how uninterested it seems in exploring these characters in the back half of the film. Instead of finding ways to integrate the models and stylists more directly into the mystery element of murder mystery, they’re pushed aside in favor of a gaggle of men and their messy relationship drama. Heider Ali’s security guard Gac, D’Silva’s Rene, Luke Pasqualino’s Angel, and Nicholas Karimi’s Patricio all have some kind of romantic history with the deceased, and Medusa Deluxe’s third act clunkily exposits these winding relationships instead of making use of the previously introduced players we already know and care about.

When the credits roll (accompanied by a choreographed, disco-infused dance number featuring the entire cast), though, the narrative third-act flaws don’t stop Medusa Deluxe from being a vibrant, artfully crafted character study. From Perkins, Webb, and Meikle’s gripping performances to the stunning hair and makeup work from Chloe Dixon and Anne Little, Medusa Deluxe is a poignant murder mystery with a stellar cast and a killer sense of style.

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