“It’s difficult to figure out what Velvet Buzzsaw actually wants to accomplish, but you’re fairly certain that whatever it is, it doesn’t quite make it.”
by Ken Bakely
It’s almost as if Dan Gilroy’s Velvet Buzzsaw can’t live up to its own expectations. Pitching itself as a manic satire of the modern art world cast against supernatural horror, the film lives largely in the space of individual scenes or performances that work, but never expands into a full and clear vision. We remember eccentricities, but not the underlying dynamics that have brought them forth in the first place. Much attention is given to the characters’ peculiar names, personalities, or choices: a donnish art critic named Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) is searching for something truly subversive and consequential to write about, just as local gallery owner and ex-punk rock musician Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo) begins exhibiting the work of Vetril Dease, an obscure artist whose paintings were discovered after his death, when his neighbor – Morf and Rhodora’s mutual friend, Josephina (Zawe Ashton) – began rummaging through his apartment.
The crux of the film’s satirical diatribes centers around the questionable ethics undertaken to get Dease’s work in front of an audience. It involves many hands assisting in such self-serving behavior, and as Velvet Buzzsaw kicks into gear, said individuals wind up dying mysterious and violent deaths, as Dease’s vengeful spirit methodically comes after them all. By raising the stakes so high from the start, Gilroy casts his lot to explore the material with farcical levels of consequence. There’s certainly nothing wrong with this approach as is – filmmakers like John Waters have used it to great effect – but considering how deadpan the actual delivery is, it feels like a road Gilroy is eventually ill-equipped to travel. His full-throttle escapades into supernatural horror clash harshly against the silliness of the film’s entire conceit and style, rendering everything into a confused middle zone.
Consequently, it’s difficult to figure out what Velvet Buzzsaw actually wants to accomplish, but you’re fairly certain that whatever it is, it doesn’t quite make it. Gilroy doesn’t make any meaningful observations on the contemporary state of the art world, nor does he entice us in the mythology of Dease’s murderous spirit beyond the sheer creativity of how it eliminates these characters (if nothing else, there’s no lack of variety here). It feels like some great expunging of ideas for a grander project that does not exist, as if we’ve only seen the draft space for some more extensive and unforgiving skewering of the critics, curators, and creators that are otherwise so briskly caricatured. Yet all we have are those caricatures. Though the cast is game to dial everything up to eleven – from Gyllenhaal’s bountiful silliness, to Russo’s jaded power moves, to a vast stable of capable supporting performances (special mention must be given to Billy Magnussen, a criminally underappreciated comic actor, whose role here as a hapless maintenance man-turned-stooge is another worthy feather in his cap) – their talents seem to exist in isolation, since the script is so disheveled.
Such an incongruent aim seems baffling coming from the director of Nightcrawler, and thus, the movie almost serves an instructional purpose, as if to dare us to gaze into its deep ambitions and try in vain to figure out exactly why it doesn’t all fit together. There’s something about it that feels too obsessed with meeting its audience everywhere, playing the hits with such dutiful rhythm that there’s nothing left for it to innovate. And the fact that we can so clearly see the strings is a real problem here, because one of the key trademarks of both intrepid satire and transgressive art is that it doesn’t pay any mind to who might feel turned off by it. By trying to hit both broad comedic marks and the dark seep of its horror roots, there’s no room left for it to actually make everything matter. Yet, to its credit, this is an undoubtedly arresting movie, and goodness knows that we’d be in a much better world if underrealized movies routinely shot for the rafters in such extravagant fashions. Velvet Buzzsaw could have a life as a minor cult curio, and its accessibility on Netflix could push that along, but by definition of the term, that’s not really what it was built for.