Velvet Buzzsaw, 2019.
Directed by Dan Gilroy.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Collette, Zawe Ashton, Tom Sturridge, Natalia Dyer, Daveed Diggs, Billy Magnussen and John Malkovich.
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.
If you were hoping that Velvet Buzzsaw might be a return to form for writer-director Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) following his indifferently-received sophomore effort Roman J. Israel Esq., know from the outset that this gonzo black comedy is categorically not that movie.
Rather, Gilroy’s third film is a challenging slow-burn horror with satirical overtones, a lampoon of the trend-focused art world, and likely one which intentionally mirrors Gilroy’s own experience following the wildly mixed response to his previous project.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as the preposterously-monikered art critic Morf Vandewalt, a shameless snob whose opinion nevertheless carries a great deal of weight in the circles of high-art. Once his friend Josephina (Zawe Ashton) discovers a dead man in her apartment complex and learns that he was a secret artist with more than a thousand works scattered around his home, she decides to flog his wares – against his strict wishes they be destroyed – with her gallery owner boss Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo).
But it’s not long before greed is violently punished, with those complicit in the selling of the dead man’s work starting to meet suspicious, grisly ends, all while Morf and co. try to figure out exactly what the hell is going on.
If you were hoping that a filmmaker of Gilroy’s clear perceptiveness would elevate that seemingly simple premise to a level of both grand satire and Grand Guignol, it’s undeniably disappointing that Velvet Buzzsaw is a far more straight-forward, mainstream-skewing film than fans of Nightcrawler will surely be hoping for.
With the horror elements, what you see is pretty much what you get; most of the Final Destination-esque death scenes aren’t particularly imaginative or shot with much flair – surprising given DP Robert Elswit’s involvement – and mostly feel like they belong in, well, a Final Destination film.
The satirical aspect meanwhile rarely delves below the surface, taking easy, low-effort pot-shots at the pretentiousness of art, art critics and the arbitrary declarations of what is “worthy” and what isn’t. There’s little in the way of smart insight into the industry, and given the immense talent involved in this film, it can’t help but feel somewhat undercooked.
But Velvet Buzzsaw most certainly isn’t a bad film by any means, and that’s largely thanks to the enticing ensemble cast. Jake Gyllenhaal is reliable as ever despite the material’s constrictions, making Morf an hilariously twitchy fop, and it’s clear he’s having a ton of fun toying around with a more cartoonish character than he usually swings for. Rene Russo is also very good here, especially when reunited with her Nightcrawler co-star Gyllenhaal, while Brit actress Zawe Ashton is compelling as the closest thing the film has to a POV character.
Sadly some of the other supporting players don’t quite get such a good innings; Toni Collette is perfectly cast as Morf’s art curator pal Gretchen, yet her existence in the film is almost totally forgettable save for one gnarly set-piece. John Malkovich doesn’t even get that, though, appearing and disappearing out of the film on a whim while getting basically nothing to do. Between this and his role in Bird Box, one suspects the acting vet must have a sweet deal worked out with Netflix (namely, not much work for a whole lotta money).
The talented Billy Magnussen and Daveed Diggs are also thoroughly underused in a film that really lives and dies by Gyllenhaal above all else. Even when the script goes around in circles or plays things too on-the-nose, he is fully committed to the absurdity and keeps it erring on the right side of entertaining (if only barely on occasion).
While Netflix’s hands-off approach to their auteur projects is admirable, Velvet Buzzsaw is perhaps also an example of what mixed results untethered artistry can deliver. Gilroy continues to be an intriguing filmmaker no question, yet his latest feels oddly spare, suggesting that his storming debut may have been more of a fluke than anyone wants to admit.
Too broad as both horror and satire to be truly effective, but worth watching for a mesmeric Jake Gyllenhaal performance and top-notch supporting cast.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.