Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)
All art is dangerous.
Surely somebody must have floated the title Art Attack at some point in the development process but, sadly, if they did it didn’t get far, and so we have Velvet Buzzsaw, an odd kind of horror/ art satire mashup that takes its name from the punk band that Rene Russo’s character, hard-nosed gallery owner Rhodora Hayes, was a member of before she figured out that there’s gold in them thar pretentious gits. She has a tattoo of their logo on her neck. It bears no relation to the plot.
The pretentious gits do, though, and the latest film from Nightcrawler (2014) director Dan Gilroy is packed to the gills with them. Chief among them is coldly savage art critic Morf Vanderwalt, played as an unctuous bundle of affectations and airs by Jake Gyllenhaal (like Russo, a veteran of Nightcrawler). Every character is more or less interchangeable, being defined by their shallowness, greed, and ambition, but Morf stands out because he is more shallow and ambitious than the rest of the pack, not to mention casually cruel — an attitude his position as an arts industry tastemaker affords him.
Still, you need to be able to tell everyone apart somehow, and so Gilroy has assembled an impressive and somewhat sprawling cast in order to help us not fall back on ‘that asshole,’ ‘that other asshole’ and ‘the asshole with the glasses.’ There’s Toni Collette, Hereditary (2018), as curator Gretchen; Tom Sturridge, Mary Shelley (2017), sporting a South African accent as gallery owner Jon Dondon, a rival of Hayes’; Zawe Ashton, Blitz (2011), as Josephina, whom Wikipedia tells us is an agent (almost all these people have interchangeable, nebulously-defined careers that seem to mainly involve being catty); Natalia Dyer, Stranger Things (2016), as Coco, a seemingly professional assistant who drifts from one employer to another in time to stumble across various gruesome bodies and scream; and, because the art world actually needs art to function, Daveed Diggs, Wonder (2017), as Damrish, an up and coming wunderkind; and John Malkovich, Being John Malkovich (1999), as Piers, an exhausted elder statesman getting back into the game after drying out.
But the art that functions as both McGuffin and harbinger of doom in Velvet Buzzsaw comes from neither of these people. Rather, it’s the life’s work of Vetril Dease (Alan Mandell), whose vast stash of disturbing paintings is discovered by Josephina, a neighbor of his, after he dies. Scenting a potential new art sensation, she enlists the jaded Morf to help ascertain their potential value, and it isn’t long before the entire art world (or at least this bitchy corner of it) is abuzz.
And then the bodies start piling up.
Dease’s work is cursed in a way that is never clearly defined but seems to involve messily dispatching anyone who tries to make money off of it. Given that pretty much every character in the film is trying to earn off this particular body of work, that gives us a fairly deep bench of potential victims, many of who are offed in the course of the film in a variety of creative and colorful ways (no spoilers — the various death sequences are all inventive enough to warrant going in cold). Gilroy and his cinematographer, Robert Elswit (also Nightcrawler), stage each death scene with the same clean, austere, carefully controlled style they use elsewhere, giving them a queasily chilly tone. Hitchcock used to say ‘film your murders like love scenes, and film your love scenes like murders,’ but Gilroy shoots his murders like a snotty European relationship drama, and the result is singular.
It’s difficult to feel much empathy for the victims, though — as already covered, they’re a pretty noxious crew, and it’s hard to work up any fellow feeling for people who spend every waking minute plotting behind the brittle façades one might have to grudgingly call their personalities. There is the occasional moment, though; Vanderwalt gets a choice scene when all his professional callousness comes home to roost, leaving him shaken; while poor Coco is simply everyone’s whipping girl, and not as marked by the jaundiced toxicity that has corrupted the rest of the ensemble. Still, the film’s most enjoyable moments come when various snooty aesthetes come undone at the hands of a more moral and bloody-minded universe than they ever suspected they inhabited. In this way, Velvet Buzzsaw owes an obvious evolutionary debt to the kind of moral horrors found in The Twilight Zone (1959-64) and EC comics like Tales From the Crypt — rather pulpy forebears for such a deliberately clinical film.
Thematically, the film seems to be mainly concerned with the nebulous and ill-defined value of art, in both a monetary and personal sense. At base, almost every character wants something out of Dease’s paintings — mainly money, it’s true, but the odd character here and there senses something deeper, or connects in a more meaningful way. These characters tend to get across the finish line in better shape than their more avaricious castmates, hinting at a more sentimental core value than you might expect given the film’s icy sheen. All artistic value might be arbitrary and subjective, but it seems that those who appreciate art as art and not just an investment fare better by the film’s implied moral system.
Velvet Buzzsaw is a strange, crossbred beast. In many ways it’s as pretentious as the culture it delights in lampooning, and you have to wonder how big the crossover audience who enjoy both sly, artsy satires and bloody tales of terror actually is — only Netflix knows for sure, and they’re pretty infamous for not telling. I suspect that a lot of people are going to be disappointed or disgruntled on first viewing, simply because it’s not easily categorized. However, I also suspect that it’ll find greater appreciation on repeat viewings. The various character tics and traits will snap into focus; the playful, snarky dialogue will land better on second and third viewings. It’s an oddity, and oddities should be welcome — while it lacks the brutally cynical tone and stylistic cohesion of Nightcrawler, it’s got a flavor of its own that is worth investigating.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Travis Johnson