While it has a game cast and offers some fun twists on typical horror-thriller scenarios, Velvet Buzzsaw makes for a relatively hollow satire.
Dan Gilroy’s third effort as a writer-director, Velvet Buzzsaw has a few things in common with his breakout feature Nightcrawler. Obviously, the film reunites him with that movie’s leads Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo (who’s also married to Gilroy), but the connection between the two runs deeper than that. Both films take place in Los Angeles and follow unscrupulous characters who exploit the suffering of others for commercial profit. The idea is more literal in Nightcrawler – which critiques unethical photojournalism and how consumer demand fuels sensationalized news reporting – but Velvet Buzzsaw is equally happy to skewer members of the modern art scene for their own self-serving behavior. Unfortunately, the results are less engaging this time around. While it has a game cast and offers some fun twists on typical horror-thriller scenarios, Velvet Buzzsaw makes for a relatively hollow satire.
Velvet Buzzsaw follows several players in L.A.’s contemporary art world, including: Morf Vandewalt (Gyllenhaal), a celebrated art critic whose reviews have made as many artists’ careers as they’ve broken; Rhodora Haze (Russo), a successful art gallery owner who left her life as a rebellious punk rocker behind her years ago; Josephina (Zawe Ashton), Rhodora’s assistant and someone eager to carve out a slice of the art world pie for herself; and Gretchen (Toni Collette), an art museum curator who’s ready to move to the private sector and the bigger paydays that await her there. All four move in and out of each other’s lives on a daily basis, as do the artists who make their living selling their work to the highest-paying customers on the market.
Everything changes when Josephina’s neighbor – a reclusive old man known as Dease – passes away, leaving behind a trove of paintings that most everyone seems to find transfixing and beautifully macabre (if also more than a little disturbing). Despite Dease’s stipulations that all of his art be destroyed after his death, Josephina and Rhodora capitalize on his hot-selling work, all while Morf looks into the painter’s mysterious past in an effort to understand who he was and where his creations came from. However, as Morf uncovers more and more disturbing truths about Dease, the man’s paintings seemingly start coming to life for real… and begin punishing those who’ve used them for personal gain.
Part of the problem is that Gilroy’s Velvet Buzzsaw script tends to be on the nose with its observations of the art world’s superficiality and greed. It also seems to run out of new things to say on those topics by the end of its first half, at which point the movie fully transitions from being a cynical satire into a slasher film where the “killer” takes on the form of artwork across a variety of mediums. This is also where things start to become much more entertaining, especially as Velvet Buzzsaw begins to embrace the inherent campiness in its premise with its horror-thriller set pieces (though, fair warning: don’t watch the movie’s trailer, unless you’re okay with being spoiled for all the best ones). At the same time, the film never leans into the goofiness of its situations as much as it could and ends up feeling a bit like a pretentious Final Destination for it.
In general, the character drama here leaves something to be desired as well. It’s not a matter of the film’s various players being too unlikeable either; Nightcrawler, after all, featured some truly despicable protagonists, but they were compelling to watch in action. That’s not really the case with the people in Velvet Buzzsaw, none of whom really rise above feeling like caricatures despite the cast’s willingness to be as wickedly shrewd, scheming, and back-stabbing as the movie’s script calls on them to be. That goes double for the supporting crew, which includes seasoned actors like John Malkovich – as a disillusioned artist who’s struggled since he gave up drinking – as well as promising talents on the rise in Daveed Diggs, Bill Magnussen, and Stranger Things‘ Natalie Dyer. Sadly, the film ends up giving them surprisingly little to do on the way to its conclusion.
Nevertheless, Velvet Buzzsaw makes for a complimentary addition to Gilroy’s explorations of Los Angeles’ subcultures in Nightcrawler and his sophomore effort, Roman J. Israel, Esq. The film was shot by Gilroy’s trusted DP Robert Elswit and does a nice job of capturing the inherent creepiness of the blank warehouses where most of L.A.’s art galleries are stored – not to mention, the threatening nature of many of the actual exhibits. Costume designers Trish Summerville (Red Sparrow) and Isis Mussenden (On the Basis of Sex) also have fun dressing the movie’s cast in clothes that illustrate their vanity and self-interest, without seeming out of tone with the film at large. If anything, it feels like Velvet Buzzsaw could have gone further with these elements and played up their theatricality more.
That, in a nutshell, is the overriding issue with Velvet Buzzsaw: it has a number of promising components that feel half-baked or in need of additional refinement. This has been something of a recurring issue with Netflix movies in general, e.g. they have potential on paper but their execution is somewhat lacking overall. At the same time, however, Gilroy’s Roman J. Israel, Esq. was also criticized for being muddled and lacking a strong through-line; which is to say, the problems with his third feature are (unfortunately) part of a trend now. Of course, there’s nothing to prevent the filmmaker from ironing out more of the wrinkles in his next project, while still succeeding in all the same ways that he did with his second and third offerings.
Admittedly, though, Velvet Buzzsaw was always going to be a tricky sell no matter what, seeing as a supernatural horror movie satire of the contemporary art world is not necessarily something that’s going to appeal to the masses. Those who are actually interested in such a film may want to check it out on Netflix all the same, and may find themselves more forgiving of its flaws in light of its fun performances and bleak humor. That goes double for those looking to add another movie to their collection of weird Jake Gyllenhaal projects like Nocturnal Animals and Netflix’s own Okja (to name but a couple).
Velvet Buzzsaw becomes available for streaming through Netflix on Friday, February 1. It is 112 minutes long and is rated R for violence, language, some sexuality/nudity, and brief drug use.
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