Velvet Buzzsaw Review
The worst thing about anything becoming popular is that everyone wants to give it a go. Horror is hot to trot right now and films from the genre are coming at us from every angle. Now it’s Dan Gilroy’s turn. Nightcrawler was an impressive debut that was horrifying in its own way but at least knew where to draw the line. Those boundaries are well and truly obliterated in Velvet Buzzsaw, a schlocky mess of a film that shifts from an art world version of The Player into the worst kind of Blumhouse-style horror.
Landing on Netflix this Friday, a mere five days after making its premiere at Sundance, Velvet Buzzsaw sees Jake Gyllenhaal and Gilroy reunite hoping to rediscover some of that Nightcrawler magic. Stuffed to the rafters with a starry cast, it’s set around the unexpected discovery of a collection of paintings that set the LA art world alive. The more famous these mysterious paintings by an unknown artist become, the more people are sent to an early, bloody grave.
Aspiring art agent Josephina (Zawe Ashton) discovers the paintings in the apartment of a deceased next door neighbour. Her boss, Rhodora (Rene Russo), and leading art critic, Morf (Gyllenhaal), quickly become obsessed with the tortured canvases as does almost everyone else who comes near. This includes rival gallery owner Jon (Tom Sturridge), museum curator Gretchen (Toni Collette), upcoming artist Damrish (Daveed Diggs), odd-job man Bryson (Billy Magnusson) and fallen artist Piers (John Malkovich).
As you can see, there’s a lot of characters vying for attention and it’s one of the many reasons why Gilroy’s film falls so flat. The director found inspiration from his failed script for the proposed Nicolas Cage-led Superman Lives back in the 90s. It’s the third film that sees Gilroy critiquing the way in which people, or institutions, are corrupted by money. The commodification of the art world seems like the perfect fit to continue exploring those ideas, but wrapped inside a poorly executed horror film they’re barely worth thinking about.
There are some fun elements that raise a smile or two, and Gyllenhaal’s campy, faux-intellectual take on critics hits the nail on the head (especially when critiquing the coffin colour of a recently deceased colleague). The first half of the film ticks along without too many problems. But once the horror elements are introduced and Gilroy starts loudly banging home his message about art and money it all comes crashing down. The exploitation-style horror set pieces sit at odds with the overall tone of the film. Combined with awkward dialogue (“All art is dangerous,” says Russo) and a toe-curling conclusion involving a street seller, the credits can’t arrive soon enough.
Not much fault can be laid at the feet of the cast who do their best with the material at hand. As mentioned, Gyllenhaal is a delight and it’s great to see Russo given a prominent role once again, and she is clearly enjoying the ruthless nature of her character. Ashton hams it up as the ambitious, self-centred social climber, but the story is spread too thinly across the rest of the cast (including Collette unfortunately) for them to leave much of an imprint.
It’s difficult to know exactly what Gilroy is going for amidst these hodge-podge of ideas. Even the silly moments of horror are difficult to enjoy as there is very little build up in tension and in-between a series of long, slow stretches drag down the pacing along with your interest. Gilroy makes it clear that almost everyone in this world is out to make a killing, it’s just a shame the film can’t manage the same.
Velvet Buzzsaw can be seen on Netflix from Friday 1st February.