Writer and director Dan Gilroy has, in his previous two features, dissected both the tabloid media business and the legal system: the former to devastating effect in his near-brilliant Nightcrawler (2014), the latter with less remarkable results in Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017). In Velvet Buzzsaw he slices and dices — literally — the art world, only filtering his narrative through the lens of a horror story. The results are original, if uneven, and just left of center enough to have found a home on Netflix.
Gilroy sets his tale smack in the middle of the Los Angeles art scene, where top critic Morf Vandewalt (future Spider-Man villain Jake Gyllenhaal, reteaming with Gilroy after Nightcrawler) is a kingmaker who can make or break an artist’s career with one review (you know, kind of like film critics — yeah, right). Morf interacts with a colorful, obnoxious and self-involved assortment of art scene types, including powerful agent Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), her ambitious assistant — and Morf’s former lover — Josephina (Zawe Ashton), competitor Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge), museum curator turned private buyer Gretchen (Toni Collette), burned-out superstar artist Piers (John Malkovich) and others.
It’s when Josephina discovers her reclusive neighbor Ventril Dease dead on the landing outside his apartment that things start to get weird. The elderly fellow, as it turns out, was both deranged and secretly an artist who kept literally hundreds of paintings hidden in his flat. Although he specifically ordered that his work be destroyed, Josephina and Rhodora see an opportunity, managing to take control of Dease’s work and turning him into a posthumous success. But when everyone connected to the Dease canon begins to die in macabre, art-related ways, at least a couple of our characters slowly realize that the artist meant it when he said he didn’t want his work to reach the public.
The first half of Velvet Buzzsaw plays like a vaguely Altman-esque satire of the art world, as the central players all overlap and the film takes a cynical birds-eye view of the way they steal from, cheat on, betray, fuck and lie to each other. Gyllenhaal may not be nearly as frightening as he was in Nightcrawler, but his imperious, impatient Morf is immediately someone you don’t want to be around, even as he becomes slightly more sympathetic toward the end of the film. In fact, none of these people are remotely likable, although they are a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
The movie is edited and paced in somewhat disjointed fashion, sapping some of its satirical zing, but it makes up for that in a second half that’s filled with showstopping deaths like an arthouse (pun intended) version of Final Destination. The most laugh-out-loud moment is when one character’s demise via art installation goes unnoticed for hours as patrons believe the corpse is part of the piece. It’s hard to top that one for sheer nuttiness, although one of the final killings has its own darker, eerie power.
Gyllenhaal — whose Morf is only truly devastated when someone suggests his recent reviews haven’t been his best — Russo and Ashton are all terrific, but it may be Collette who walks off with the film as the flighty, conspiratorial Gretchen. The cast is Velvet Buzzsaw’s strongest asset, with even smaller supporting players having an offbeat energy that helps fill out what are essentially fairly broad caricatures of the kind of folks who might mingle around a high-end exhibition opening.
Shot by Robert Elswit, who turned Los Angeles at night into a gleaming, neon labyrinth of seediness for Nightcrawler, Velvet Buzzsaw offers up its horrors in bright California sunshine and modern gallery spaces as much as abandoned warehouse and darkened apartments. The settings make the supernatural happenings that much more surreal, even if the intrusion of one genre into another doesn’t always work seamlessly.
Velvet Buzzsaw is entertaining even if it’s rather superficial, and it’s indicative of the style of many of movies that Netflix is now producing: it’s got a premise or story just different enough to set it apart from the standard offerings that Hollywood rolls out into theaters these days, but it lacks a certain polish that keeps one from imagining it on the big screen. With the talent behind and in front of the camera, Velvet Buzzsaw is eye-catching and entertaining if unspectacular. If it was a painting, you might stare at it for a while on a gallery wall before moving on, more or less unmoved but still glad you saw it.
Velvet Buzzsaw premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and is now streaming on Netflix.