Dan Gilroy’s 2014 thriller Nightcrawler delved into the seedy underbelly of crime journalism, and the increasingly unethical means taken to capture the most sensational news and increase ratings. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo, it was a dark, tense, and thoughtful portrait of a disturbed, manipulative sociopath. It is, in my opinion, a masterpiece. Gilroy reunites with Gyllenhaal, Russo, and cinematographer Robert Elswit for Velvet Buzzsaw, a clunky yet mildly entertaining film that blends horror and satire, out now on Netflix.
The film follows Gyllenhaal’s Morf Vandewalt, a Los Angeles art critic at the top of his field. He’s so influential that a negative review from him can end an artist’s career. The film opens with Vandewalt attending the opening of an art exhibit owned by Rhodora Haze, played by Rene Russo. The scene serves to introduce the film’s colorful and star-studded cast, featuring the talents of Toni Collette as museum curator Gretchen, Zawe Ashton as Haze’s ambitious protégé Josephina, Natalia Dyer of Stranger Things fame as timid assistant Coco, Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs as the popular new artist Damrish, and, in my opinion, a waste of a perfectly good John Malkovich as Piers, an aging has-been artist.
The first half of Velvet Buzzsaw serves as a satire of the world of high art but it doesn’t have anything new to say. High art is shallow, the artists and critics are pretentious, and gallery owners just want to make top dollar, casting aside anyone who doesn’t turn a profit for them. These tropes have been done to death, but I still found myself entertained thanks to the cast’s performances. Gyllenhaal’s performance is flamboyant, over-the-top, and an absolute delight to watch. If Velvet Buzzsaw had just been two hours of Morf Vandewalt being snarky and critiquing pieces of art, I would have no complaint. You can tell he had massive fun with the role. Russo’s performance as a ruthless gallery owner is more subdued but every bit as enjoyable to watch.
The film shifts to horror when Josephina discovers her recently deceased neighbor and his collection of original paintings. Though the artist, known as Dease, left instructions for his artwork to be destroyed, Josephina sees an opportunity and takes the paintings before they can be destroyed. Dease’s work takes the art community by storm, and everyone wants a piece. His work is enthralling but has a sinister quality to them, which only increase people’s fascination with the art. As it turns out, the artist’s last wishes should not have been ignored as his spirit now possesses the art, and can possess any piece of art it chooses. This results in a myriad of campy and creative kills as one by one, anyone who has profited from Dease’s art is killed off. Despite the artistic nature of the kills, the horror in this film feels too predictable, and is marred even further by a couple of cheap jump scares that add nothing to the film.
Greed is at the center of Velvet Buzzsaw. The art world cares more about money than talent and inspiration, and it’s their greed that becomes the catalyst of their downfall. Velvet Buzzsaw is an ambitious film with an interesting premise and plenty of potential but is too clunky and underwhelming to realize that potential. The horror aspects fell flat, and the film ended without a feeling of resolution. The film has just enough trashy fun to warrant a watch but Velvet Buzzsaw is just as shallow as the modern art it satirizes. 5/10
(Photo by Claudette Barius | Netflix)