Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Zawe Ashton, Billy Magnussen, Toni Collette, John Malkovich, Natalia Dyer, Peter Gadiot, Daveed Diggs, Tom Sturridge
Director: Dan Gilroy
Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
If writer-director Dan Gilroy had his way, negative responses to his latest satire/horror thriller Velvet Buzzsaw would inevitably be destroyed in a mixture of splattered paint and gushing blood, because taking down something this thoroughly mediocre would involve a level of elitism not unlike the film’s central character, critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal). Similar to the dated satire of news journalists as vampires in Gilroy’s 2014 film Nightcrawler, Velvet Buzzsaw is here to announce how the art world is a farce championing commercialism over the purity of outsider art. All of this brought to you by the cynical cash cow that is Netflix, of course.
Truthfully, there’s a nifty idea here in regards to art taking vengeance on exploiters, but Gilroy never trusts the lunacy of that premise. Instead, most of the picture spins its wheels making obvious points about art dealers while trotting out a variety of clichéd character types. Along with Gyllenhaal’s glib critic, there’s world-weary gallery owner, Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), struggling gallery employee Josephina (Zawe Ashton), Daveed Digs as a local artist, Toni Collette in a bad blonde wig, John Malkovich as a former alcoholic painter, and young receptionist Coco (Natalia Dyer), who, in one of the film’s decent gags, keeps finding dead bodies. From a visual standpoint, Gilroy’s streamlined aesthetic has a certain efficiency, even as the self-conscious filmmaking (complete with a shot where the camera glides through a glass of champagne), never fully leans into its B-movie potential.
Eventually, Josephina discovers a bunch of abandoned paintings following the death of a neighbor, and seeking a way to break into the art world club, brings them to Rhodora, who starts selling at a fever clip. The paintings themselves are pastoral depictions of trauma, but naturally, the rich salivate over their supposed brilliance all the same. Gradually, a supernatural presence unleashes itself upon those who merely hope to profit from the artwork, veering Velvet Buzzsaw into the realm of camp horror. A little of this absurd bloodletting goes a long way, but since the characters here are all cartoons placed against art installation backdrops, there’s very little investment in their demise. Gilroy has manufactured his film to be a joke that’s also in on the joke, but there’s only so many gif-worthy images one can pull out until the whole thing collapses under the weight of low-hanging fruit.
At one point, Gyllenhaal’s snobby critic (who becomes increasingly unhinged during the final act in that very particular way of Gyllenhaal going unhinged these days), bellows “the admiration I had for your work has completely evaporated!" to a young artist. The line is a form of Gilroy critic-proofing his own film, all but admitting that Velvet Buzzsaw is purposeful trash. Therefore, what could have been a pulp answer to Ruben Östlund’s The Square (with shades of David Cronenberg’s lacerating Maps to the Stars), instead turns into a smug Black Mirror episode (minus the tech phobia) where pissed off paintings become Freddy Krueger. Which begs the question. Why debate the merits of art, the rights of an artist, or even why dealers are obsessed with finding the next big thing (aside from financial gain) when the answers are this self-defeating?