In various renditions of Greek mythology, the serpentine Gorgonite Medusa could turn unsuspecting people who caught her gaze to stone. Her history, that of being cursed by the wisdom goddess Athena after fornicating with sea god Poseidon, most often depicts her as a monstrous creature with snakes for hair. In Tom Hardiman’s audacious whodunnit debut, MEDUSA DELUXE, it’s the hair that is cursed, and a trio of viperous contestants each embody a facet of the Gorgonite sister mythology.
At a regional hair-dressing competition in the north of England – filmed in Preston, specifically – a murder has occurred. But not just a simple stabbing, shooting, or poisoning that would be too ‘tropey’ for a mystery like this, nor has a person been turned to stone like the myth. Instead, the victim, Mosca (John Robert Daniel), has been scalped, referencing the Native American war practice that prevented a person from going to their version of heaven. The scalps collected became trophies and spoils of war. Through the next 100 minutes, relationships dissolve and collapse as the contestants’ obsession with a hairdressing trophy leads this movie down a route that is less interested in the mystery and more interested in digging down to the dramatic follicles of resentment within each one.
In a move that could be perceived as biting off more than he could chew, Hardiman shoots this murder mystery in one continuous 100-minute take. In recent years, Philip Barantini had much success with his one-take kitchen drama BOILING POINT, as did Sebastian Schipper, who received acclaim for his Berlin-set one-take drama VICTORIA. Unfortunately, unlike those, it’s a less auspicious move than desired in MEDUSA DELUXE, whose admirability trumps the final product.
A good edit can make or break comedic timing. By choosing to shoot in one continuous take, Hardiman has removed his option to cut. This decision means you’re left far too often with a humorous line of dialogue hanging on the screen as the camera pivots to the next person speaking. Hardiman’s script is full of these fun little zingers that often feel poised to induce a laugh. Still, each time a smirk threatens to appear, the lack of an editing bite to let the humour land whisks the moment away. Staying within the ‘murder mystery’ realm, it would be as if Rian Johnson’s acclaimed KNIVES OUT didn’t cut to a reaction shot after a Benoit Blanc witticism.
There’s a certain joy in murder mysteries, usually derived from a lead detective being an audience surrogate, finding out things as the audience does. Therefore, it’s an intriguing and fresh idea to place no audience-facing character within the situation. Hardiman’s audience surrogate within the script is instead the various characters learning or admitting different elements of the mystery. We learn the intricacies of what happened from the dramatic arguments and obtuse postulation, especially how the camera weaves through the building, which becomes a labyrinth of hidden provocations. However, the characters themselves are not as compelling as they need to be to playfully become a sleight of hand to divert from the mystery itself. There’s enough time to get to know them, but they’re not utilised well enough nor given enough memorable depth, especially as the camera trails these people down long, silent passages in what feels like a derelict building. There’s obviously been a lot of effort behind the production (Hardiman mentions in an interview that a wall of the building was blown up to help streamline the camera movement between scenes), but the night-time shoot means some of that work is shrouded in too little light, as cinematographer Robbie Ryan (THE FAVOURITE, AMERICAN HONEY) leaves the finer details of the setting concealed on the merry chase around these characters.
The main character highlight – aside from the very cute baby whose inclusion within an endeavour like this was a minor miracle to see work – is contestant Cleve (a venomous Clare Perkins), who finds themselves having the fiercest wherewithal within the cast, especially in one fight scene between her and another contestant, Kendra (Harriet Webb). However, the single take does her performance no benefit, as the final film has the occasional flat line reading. When she’s the brash hairstylist panicking over the murder, she and the film burn with chaos that is pure slick entertainment.
Much in MEDUSA DELUXE really works: the costume design and hairstyling from renowned stylist Eugene Souleiman is gorgeous, petrifying those looking upon it in admiration. Hardiman’s salt-infused snarky dialogue often shines, and a wonderfully percussive, jazzy score bops intermittently from electro producer Koreless. The confidence behind taking on a project of this ilk for a debut feature is beyond admirable. Unfortunately, the momentum ebbs far too often, the engagement more akin to a hairdresser spending too long gossiping with you than executing the actual haircut. For all its flashy, overt style and the intriguing ideas behind a thematic rendition of the Gorgonite story, MEDUSA DELUXE too often has dull blades on its scissors.