Velvet Buzzsaw, 2019.
Directed by Dan Gilroy.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Zawe Ashton, Tom Sturridge, Toni Collette, Natalia Dyer, Daveed Diggs, John Malkovich, and Billy Magnussen.
After a series of paintings by an unknown artist are discovered, a supernatural force enacts revenge on those who have allowed their greed to get in the way of art.
Velvet Buzzsaw slices one hell of a trailer, but Netflix’s art scene corpsegrinder is an ostentatious slog. Pretentiousness with a purpose, only Dan Gilroy’s creative angst feels cut off by a safe word as far as horror submergence is concerned. At its best, you’ll marvel seesawing commentaries on critique versus creation. Amidst doldrums, one may notice how marketing swirls a much more thrilling pastiche. Blood squirts (minimally), greed corrupts (immeasurably), but Gilroy never sculpts the dark delicacy genre fans might hope based on Nightcrawler’s pseudo-horror thematics. This critic may not write more painful words in 2019.
Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo) sniffs the hottest artistic talents, curates the city’s most prestigious gallery, and keeps a close relationship with renowned critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal). Ambitious employee Josephina (Zawe Ashton) perks both their ears upon the discovery of a deceased man’s apartment full of revolutionary paintings. Under Haze’s shady business ethics and iconic popularity the bids come pouring in for an original “Ventril Dease,” but then dead bodies start piling up. Did I mention it was the creator’s wish that all his paintings be destroyed? What’s the price of profitability nowadays anyway?
Ventril Dease’s angry, vengeful spirit. That question was rhetorical.
From here the infection spreads as art community cutthroats and appreciators alike become transfixed on Dease’s mysterious allure. Private dealer Gretchen (Toni Collette) tersely demands her client’s private Dease collection adorn LAMA, up-and-comer Damrish (Daveed Diggs) poses himself in long stares through Josephine’s bedroom Dease, Haze’s rival Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge) pays a poacher’s price – the plot thickens by product of Dease’s gravitational pull. Everyone wants a piece of the hottest discussion across town, driving a stake of madness through multiple hearts. Cue insatiable consumerism and freelance commentaries about fading talent, exuberant discovery, and the fakeness that drives sticker values. Who decides what’s hip; who drops the guillotine of insignificance.
That relationship between artist and audience – Morf’s ethics when toppling or building careers – is Gilroy’s most biting voice. Undersold is Velvet Buzzsaw’s jagged edge when it comes to sculpture device trappings or oily color runs that twirl around a victim’s body or (literal) monkey mechanics who reach from acrylic tapestries. Highlights cut such an unsightly and grisly reel, but only because the act of marketing is to tease; promise more. Instead of leaning into – as some have noted – Final Destination with a possession angle kills, Gilroy relies on Gyllenhaal’s mental rot as his connection to Dease’s work unspools a critic’s entire view on purpose. Never as dark, nor daring, nor disgusting as we – or at least this critic – wish Gilroy would push. Often richly deplorable and self-obsessed-chic in the most plastic, wafer-thin way, yet we’re left cheated of the Pompeii-like collapse Velvet Buzzsaw deserves.
Gyllenhaal’s bisexual culture writer furthers the actor’s pursuit of cinema’s most flamboyant, emotive, and downright divergent roles. Not only that, but he sells Velvet Buzzsaw’s dagger-sharp skewering of pretentious livelihoods like none of the other ensemble can. “A bad review is better than sinking into the great glut of anonymity.” Gyllenhaal’s emotionless delivery of the conversation that follows said quote – about an artist who tries to kill himself because of a lousy Vandewalt pan – is Gilroy’s masterwork. Eccentric, spiteful, egotistically justified. Morf Vandewalt opens conversational doors that other characters quickly close because their arcs are never as introspective.
Russo’s ringleader grants Velvet Buzzsaw its title based on the name of her early-years musical act (complete with logo neck tattoo), but her “vileness” is routine hunter-provider corporate blindness. Ashton’s disgraced-assistant-turned-asset doesn’t speak to anything more than ignoring the dead’s wishes for personal profit (fame corrupts). John Malkovich’s sober has-been savant goes from filling many small shapes with a few colors to filling large shapes with a few colors (art is objective they say). Natalia Dyer endures a comical running gag by discovering every dead body, Billy Magnussen’s talents are wasted, Diggs a stationary vape smokestack – players signify Los Angeles’ tailored soullessness, but without satirical staying power.
When discussing the good about Velvet Buzzsaw, there’s plenty. Hoboman’s AI hobbles on crutches in an attempt to save Gilroy’s hide (he can’t), mirrored metal blobs represent an all-knowing installation, and Dease’s blood-injected paintings imbue tortured upbringings. There’s also an undefined nature as to Dease’s slaughter abilities and general horror rules that leaves so much substance in question. Art is powerful enough to make Morf Vandewalt a filthy rich tastemaker god, dangerous enough to capture our darkest torment, and influential enough to challenge people’s strive for life – a shame Velvet Buzzsaw is half the critique these notes suggest.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Matt spends his after-work hours posting nonsense on the internet instead of sleeping like a normal human. He seems like a pretty cool guy, but don’t feed him after midnight just to be safe (beers are allowed/encouraged). Follow him on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd (@DoNatoBomb).