Dan Gilroy’s eye for the bizarre and the absurd is on full display once again with Velvet Buzzsaw, however, it is without the incisive and impactful storytelling shown in his critically-acclaimed film, Nightcrawler.
Gilroy reunites with Jake Gyllenhaal who plays a powerful art critic named Morf Vandewalt whose eccentric persona lends to another iconic performance from the vastly underappreciated Gyllenhaal. Morf’s power lies in his scathing and influential critique; if he praises a piece of art, people want to buy it. As Renee Russo’s Rhodora expresses, he is a God in the art world.
The movie’s plot begins to unfold after the death of a local artist, Ventril Dease, who lived in Rhodora’s assistant’s apartment building. Josephina (Zawe Ashton) discovers a treasure trove of artwork left behind and ignores Dease’s final wish for all of it to be destroyed. She greedily begins to use Dease’s art to leverage her career, and the disturbed painting of the deadman finds its way on the conveyor belt of LA’s art galleries. Big mistake.
In Velvet Buzzsaw Gilroy condemns his characters for their shallow consumption of art and then theatrically shows us why they deserve their fate; nothing is worse than pretentious art collectors and curators who value the capitalist nature of the art world and not the actual art.
A part of me instantly made the connection with Banksy, a world-renowned yet unknown artist who decided to punish wealthy art collectors recently when he decided to put a shredder inside one of his art pieces and shredded it the moment it was sold in an auction. The difference between Banksy and Dease, however, is that Banksy lost his symbolic battle against the machine of capitalism because the shredded version came to be valued higher than its un-shredded predecessor. Maybe Dease, whether intentional or not, had a more disturbing comeback. Through Morf’s research of Dease, we learn that the inspiration behind his artwork is his troubled life and we soon discover his art has people dying under bizarre art-related circumstances.
Velvet Buzzsaw is full of scene-chewing performances, and with the movie being a horror-satire, it works relatively well and the dialogue is quite entertaining. Apart from Coco (Natalie Dyer), who is in her own ways cruel and opportunistic, is the only level-headed character in a movie full of pretentious, cold, greedy caricature-level art obsessives. Their obsession with notoriety, fame, and wealth ultimately leads to their downfall. Coco and the other two artists featured in the film, played by Daveed Diggs and John Malkovich, act as a gage to illustrate how far gone the other characters are.
Velvet Buzzsaw demands more from the viewer than it deserves, the final third of the movie is a slow-burn and it didn’t have to be. The run-time comes close to two hours and it would’ve benefitted from cutting about 30 minutes. The conclusion felt like a bit of a cop-out given how nuanced the movie tried to be. Weirdly, it turns into a slasher with Dease’s curse as the primary culprit, with little reasons as to why the art was doing this. A lot is left to the viewer’s imagination.
The movie’s desire to leave an impression falls flat. There are aspects that are certainly unforgettable, but it deserved a better conclusion. The elements of the supernatural that the movie hints towards are never really explored, and that might have been the untapped gold that could’ve lent to a more complete experience. Gilroy’s picked out a very particular niche, and swung as hard as he could, he certainly didn’t miss, but he didn’t connect as flush as he would’ve liked. The Buzzsaw snarled and rattled, and then the motor gave out.