Dan Gilroy's Velvet Buzzsaw is one-half an amusing, if overly obvious satire of art world pretension and viciousness and one-half a genuinely terrible would-be horror movie. There is something to be respected in Gilroy's ambitious genre mash-up, and somewhere out there is a potentially good movie that merges cultural parody with slasher movie conventions-but this isn't it. Having already dug deep into the darkest recesses of human violence and corruption in Nightcrawler (2014), a searing indictment of bleeding-leading tabloid journalism, and Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017), a drama about the injustice of the justice system, it is no surprise that Gilroy finds virtually nothing to redeem in Velvet Buzzsaw-all of the characters are either already corrupted or well on their way.
The film's protagonist is Josephina (Zawe Ashton), a newbie in the high-price Los Angeles art world trying to prove her bona fides working for longtime gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), whose indie rock band from her youth provides the film its title. Josephina strikes gold when she happens upon the body of one of her neighbors and discovers that he is a Henry Darger-like reclusive artistic genius who has been compiling troves of artwork in his dark, claustrophobic apartment. Although the man, Vetril Dease, left explicit instructions that all his art should be destroyed upon his death, Josephina carries as much of it as she can to her apartment and then conspires with Rhodora and Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal), a high-brow art critic with whom she is romantically invovled, to claim she found the pieces in a dumpster and then sell them at Rhodora's gallery. Dease becomes an immediate "outsider artist" sensation, taking the art world by storm much to the consternation of Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge), a competing gallery owner who has recently stolen a renowned artist named Piers (John Malkovich) from under Rhodora's wing only to find that he is suffering from artist's block. Circling around all of this is Gretchen (Toni Collette), an art rep who also wants in on the action. Unfortunately, said action comes with a curse that results in everyone who is profiting from Dease's posthumous work suffering a terrible death by art-with sculptures chewing up arms, paintings coming to life and consuming bodies, and a robotic hobo installation taking on a murderous life of its own.
On paper, there is something amusingly compelling about the ideas in Velvet Buzzsaw, and the game cast gives it their all, with Gyllenhaal playing up Morf's penchant for hiding his own insecurities with grandiose critical proclamations and Russo giving real tension to Rhodora's shark-like self-preservation. As Josephina, Zawe Ashton has the film's most crucial role because she dramatizes the erosion of a moral conscience, but her character is ultimately not interesting enough to carry that burden. In some ways, Gyllenhaal's snooty art critic is more interesting because he seems to grow into some kind of conscience once he realizes what is happening; he becomes the deranged voice of reason, even if his motivation is largely to save his own skin (his determination to write an essay exposing the Dease curse threatens his professional livelihood but might save lives).
Unfortunately, Gilroy can't make the film's various parts come together; the cultural satire is too broad and the horror is not only not particularly horrific, but is oftentimes silly and almost always derivative (it plays like an art-world riff on the Omen movies, except people die not because they discover the identity of the Antichrist, but because they're making money off a deceased painter). By the end, one is left with the feeling that Gilroy just despises the pretensions of the high art world and fashioned Velvet Buzzsaw as a cinematic fantasy slaughterhouse for its most cliched denizens.
Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Netflix
Overall Rating: (2)
Get a daily dose of Atlanta Leader news through our daily email, its complimentary and keeps you fully up to date with world and business news as well.