“Velvet Buzzsaw” Movie Review

I’ve only been to a handful of art museums in my home state in Texas, and I can confirm that there are indeed people who act like the people in this movie. I shudder just to think how much more snobby they could be in a huge place like L.A. or New York. This satirical horror-thriller premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival to a wide range of responses from those who attended. Just 5 days later, it was released in a limited theatrical engagement as well as on the streaming service Netflix on February 1st, 2019. The $21 million production was supposedly originally going to be released back in October of last year, but got pushed back. Written and directed by Dan Gilroy, the same man behind 2014’s Nightcrawler, the project was conceived from the filmmaker’s tumultuous experience co-writing Tim Burton’s unmade version of Superman Lives. Embittered over Warner Bros. concern for the increasingly large budget over anything else, it had apparently taken him quite a while to make peace with the disaster. He has frequently described the film to be similar in themes and style to Robert Altman’s ensemble classic The Player. Set in the glitzy modern art scene of Los Angeles, the story follows quite a few characters, but it mostly focuses on well-renowned art critic Morf Vandewalt, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. His agent and lover Josephina, played by Zawe Ashton, discovers a treasure trove of never-before-seen paintings by a recently deceased artist named Vetril Dease. But when numerous people in the world of art seek to profit off of them, including Rene Russo as the cutthroat gallery owner Rhodora Haze, these paintings apparently come to life and start murdering anyone wanting to make money. 2014’s Nightcrawler is one of my absolute favorite films of the last decade, and one of the best directorial debuts I’ve ever seen. It was clear that Dan Gilroy had something to say about the ruthless world of commercial entertainment and how anything can be made into such with enough grit. Not to mention, it featured two astounding and horribly snubbed performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo as the sociopathic protagonists. The prospect of seeing these two actors reunite with Gilroy on a brand new movie, especially one as oddball as this ,was highly intriguing. After all, the modern art world has essentially become a parody of itself. And while Velvet Buzzsaw isn’t anywhere near as good or revelatory as Nightcrawler, it’s still very entertaining and engaging. Although it is a straight-up horror flick, it really isn’t all that scary or even disturbing. Rather, Velvet Buzzsaw approaches its subject matter with a surprising amount of silliness and hot air, (The characters’ names are deliberately ridiculous) while still telling its story with a lot of venom. Most of the individuals in the film are pathetic creatures who only care about how much money a piece of art may make, and not at all appreciate what Jackson Pollock or Allan Kaprow are trying to say with their art, with one character exclaiming, “What’s the point of making art if nobody sees it?” However, it ultimately falls prey to its setting, and at points it starts to feel like a pretentious critic shouting into the void. While it is poetic that the film was funded and released by Netflix, it still doesn’t feel as insightful or deep as it wants to be. Thankfully, it tries to avoid much self-seriousness with a mad capper tone, which helps save it from becoming a hollow mess. Morf Vandewalt has to be one of the weirdest names I’ve seen recently, but Gyllenhaal hams it up perfectly. He’s a sniveling, detached, and snooty critic who may not even believe his own critiques as long as the piece is a success. Gilroy’s real-life wife Rene Russo and Toni Collette are equally brilliant as Rhodora Haze and Gretchen, the icy art gallery owners who always have money on their minds before anything else. While they may be rivals in the film, their goals are very similar as they want nothing more than to be the only ones to sell Dease’s paintings. And the big ensemble cast features awesome roles from John Malkovich, Billy Magnussen, Daveed Diggs, Tom Sturridge, Natalie Dyer, but the biggest revelation has to be Zawe Ashton a Josephina, the agent who finds the art in the first place. While at first she appears decent, she gradually and deliberately gets rid of any sympathy for this character as she herself succumbs to insatiable greed. Like Morf, she slowly becomes disillusioned with reality from these works and will do anything to stay at the top of the ladder. I’d love to see what else she has in store for viewers in the future. Meanwhile, the technical aspects show that Gilroy is further developing his own style and voice. With Paul Thomas Anderson’s regular cinematographer Robert Elswit, who shot the director’s two previous films, he proves once again he has a unique talent for shooting the city of L.A. The shots and framing are as sleek and shiny as the world in which the story takes place, and frequently floats around from character to character in a scene. It also uses lighting to its advantages in many aspects, such as telegraphing when someone might be killed next. The director’s twin brother John Gilroy also edits the film, as he has for every member of his family. It knows when to cut away from a shot or let something linger on-screen. And this being a horror movie, you’d expect there to be some creative or memorable deaths. With so much art to go around in the plot, I was pretty impressed by a lot of the kills, some of which drew real laughter from me. Replacing the director’s previous collaborator Jams Newton Howard, Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders give us the film score. I’ll be perfectly honest, I can’t remember a single track or note from the whole film, so it’s not really worth it. Instead, it leans a lot on contemporary pop or electronic songs. This ultimately contributes to making the art world feel even more plastic and vapid. Knowing what it wants to do and wasting zero time lollygagging before getting to it, Velvet Buzzsaw is a gleefully trashy and scathing, if somewhat slight portrait of profit over art. It’s definitely an interesting next step for Dan Gilroy’s directorial career, if not a totally solid one. He clearly has something to say and a particular way to say it, all while trying to keep it as an entertaining horror flick. I would say more, but honestly, critique can be so limiting and emotionally draining.

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