Movie Review: ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’
Directed by: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, and Zawe Ashton
Plot: A supernatural force associated with recently discovered paintings target movers and shakers of the art world.
Let it be said, that Jake Gyllenhaal commits 100% to any character he is given no matter what the overall quality of the movie is.
I was very much looking forward to enjoying this movie. Mostly because Nightcrawler is great, and I hope Dan Gilroy isn’t going to be a one-hit wonder. I didn’t bother to see his second feature, Roman J. Israel, Esq, which also got dumped on if I remember correctly. I didn’t even know he made that one until I read a few reviews for this movie. The major flaw of Velvet Buzzsaw is it tries to be two things at once, and it fails at both, sadly.
One of those things is a biting satire of the art scene, except it has no teeth. Rene Russo plays Rhodora Haze, former punk rock queen with the band Velvet Buzzsaw, who is now a sellout millionaire art curator and seller. She has a Miranda Priestly taskmaster personality on her underlings, but she mostly rubs elbows with the artists and critics. One such critic is the impossibly name Morf Vandewalt, Gyllenhaal’s very posh, often effeminate, taste maker, who will swear on the lives of many of his loved ones that he isn’t giving Rhodora’s art preferentially high marks so she can sell them at a premium, which also pays for Morf’s kickback. But he does.
Cinema is not the best place to be making these arguments though. Although it is getting easier and easier to DIY a movie and get in front of an audience, it is still difficult. Almost every movie worth seeing has some sort of corporation behind it. Netflix distributed this one. Netflix, often criticized (unjustly in my opinion) with the downfall of the movie-going experience, could just as easily be the subject of this movie. It almost works better as an art scene workplace comedy. Gyllenhaal and Russo’s on-screen chemistry is near-perfect, as is the various actors playing competing artists and critics like: Daveed Diggs, John Malkovich, and Toni Collete. The dark humor of their insincere social pleasantries comes so naturally. It’s like “Sex and the City,” but everyone is a little more honest about how much they actually hate each other.
This all becomes just place-setting for the second thing that Velvet Buzzsaw tries to be: supernatural horror, specifically the variety where an inanimate object is haunted and causes the deaths of those who get close to it. The objects in question are a series of paintings from an unknown artist found dead in his apartment complex. He left instructions that they be burned, but they were recovered at the last minute by one of Rhodora’s underlings, Josephina (played by Zawe Ashton, who is potentially the true protagonist here). She’s not given much to work with, but she is the outside who is trying to navigate Rhodora and Morf’s worlds simultaneously. Its just that Rhodora and Morf are focal point magnets. They can’t help but take center stage.
Like Nightcrawler before it, you hope that their is some hidden commentary on the how and why we consume content, but Gilroy seems intent on punishing those who aren’t purely into expressing themselves. It could still work, in theory, but the effects were not totally up to snuff. A trio of illustrated monkeys that reached through a mirror were less than convincing, and an animatronic mannequin modern art piece doesn’t exactly scream intimidating when it is lumbering down the hall. (Although, there is a dead body that is mistaken for a modern art installation, which is pretty fun).
It is the kind of movie, had it been made in the 70s or 80s, might be a staple of the midnight movie scene. They’d have memorabilia at Hot Topic and whole generations of horror nerds, who weren’t alive when it first came out, would stick their noses up at us for not fully appreciating it during its initial run. It might still find a second life as a cult favorite in a generation or two, but it’s missing that made desperately-but-with-love feeling those movies usually have.