Not thrilling enough as a thriller and not outrageous enough as satire, Velvet Buzzsaw is merely a Netflix-level Nocturnal Animals. Both films feature Jake Gyllenhaal as a man in over his head within the pretentious art world, but while Nocturnal Animals had its ambitious moments and some stand-out performances, Velvet Buzzsaw didn’t elicit much of a response in me apart from disinterest. In Dan Gilroy’s supernatural evisceration of the art-as-business enterprise, Gyllenhaal plays Morf Vandewalt, a fussy art critic in cahoots with Los Angeles gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo). As the film opens at an art show in Miami, Morf and Rhodora bump into people, making small talk with lots of cheek-kissing and fake smiles, such as Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge), a rival gallery owner trying to get the grumbling Piers (John Malkovich) to allow Dondon to sell his paintings. These are all more caricatures than characters, yet none are eccentric or ridiculous enough–especially Malkovich and Gyllenhaal–to provoke much of a response. I was hoping for Okja levels of wacky Gyllenhaal voices and mannerisms or Donnie Darko levels of existential dread and weirdness, only to be disappointed.
The film plays out a familiar horror premise: a violation of a sacred boundary by a group of people leads to the violated party (usually a ghost) to enact its revenge on the cast of characters, one by one, usually in distinctly gruesome ways. In the case of Velvet Buzzsaw, the vengeful spirit is enigmatic deceased artist Vetril Dease. His artworks are discovered by his neighbor, Josephina (Zawe Ashton), Morf’s sometimes-lover and Rhodora’s acolyte. When she finds hundreds of incredible paintings in Dease’s Se7en-like apartment, she and Rhodora hatch a plan to sell the artwork, despite Dease’s instructions to have it all destroyed. In this, Velvet Buzzsaw is a literal “death of the author” tale as the artist’s intent is discarded for the sake of audience reception (or, in this case, making tons of money). Roland Barthes would either be proud or rolling in his own grave. As Velvet Buzzsaw takes the entire high art world to task via its trashy, conventional storyline and digitized aesthetic, it ends up revealing its own inadequacies by leaning too heavily on tropes and conventions. Numerous jump scares–a cat literally jumps onto a table for one–are the main thrills, while the violence is either off-screen or too CGI-laden to be truly horrifying. It comes across as rudimentary and silly; it’s too artificial and obvious to keep one’s interest for long.
To be clear, I think I love Gilroy’s underlying premise–that there’s an inherent spirituality or transcendence to art; that art is, in fact, risky and dangerous in its power to captivate and affect us, and that critics at their best can help us pay attention to this spiritual dimension, while at their worst they can sell out to The Man. Morf seems to recognize this spiritual nature, trying to tap into it as a true believer (he feels like a witless victim in all this). All the others are like priests selling indulgences to the laity, rigging the price to heaven in order to create their personal heavens on earth at the expense of others’ wallets. The critique of capitalist ideology and the commoditization of art is one well worth discussing, but Gilroy doesn’t actually explore it in depth here, choosing crazy death scenes over chilling satire (for more of the latter, see his film Nightcrawler, a far better Gilroy-Gyllenhaal-Russo collaboration). By Velvet Buzzsaw’s finale, Gilroy’s message ends up feeling quite muddled and mixed, even suggesting (probably unintentionally) that art is basically meaningless (at best) and horribly detrimental (at worst). Maybe it’s fitting that we never see the buyers Gilroy is trying to critique. In a sense, we as the film’s audience are both the buyers and fellow victims–we just gave two hours of our time and attention to yet another mediocre Netflix film, one which held so much promise and potential, but which feels like it violates the spirit of cinema in its vapidity.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7043012/