What is art? For Nightcrawler director Dan Gilroy, it’s a target. His new movie Velvet Buzzsaw takes the pretentious art world as its canvas and uses a palette mixing pointed satire and bloody horror.
Premiering at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, Velvet Buzzsaw comes to Netflix on 1 February. Gilroy teams up once again with Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo, who delivered such searing performances in the darkly incendiary Nightcrawler.
The film opens with a wander around upscale art fair Art Basel that recalls the work of Robert Altman, meeting various characters as they flirt and snipe at each other while wearing great outfits. This sequence takes a bit of concentration, as several characters are introduced through other people gossiping about them, so it takes a minute to join up the names and faces as you work out who’s who.
Among those characters are Gyllenhaal’s critic and art world kingmaker, all hoisted eyebrows and oversized designer glasses. Russo is a punk rocker turned classy gallery owner, while John Malkovich plays an artist wrestling between sobriety and creativity and Toni Collette is a museum worker grasping the brass ring. It’s pretty funny stuff, like when Gyllenhaal’s obliviously taste-obsessed critic critiques the music at a funeral, or a dead body is mistaken for an art installation.
The shallow self-centeredness and vapid appetites of this crass cast of LA denizens recalls the work of Brett Easton Ellis, complete with swerve into horror territory. Gyllenhaal and Russo’s characters go by the names Morf Vandewalt and Rhodora Haze, but even they’re given a run for their money in the silly name stakes by the film’s most important character, Vetril Dease. He’s a reclusive old man who drops dead in front of Zawe Ashton‘s ambitious assistant Josephina, leaving a grubby apartment full of stunningly intense paintings. The fact Dease wanted his work destroyed doesn’t trouble the vultures of the art world as they immediately begin to circle. Morf plans a book about Dease, Josephina plots to make her career and Rhodora schemes to become even more filthy rich.
Things don’t go their way for long. As people begin to die in strange and horrifying ways and the remaining characters spiral into desperation and venality, it seems the art might be taking revenge…
That’s where Gilroy’s pointed satire of the art world detours into darker territory. From Josephina creeping through a spooky apartment to the elaborately staged murders, Velvet Buzzsaw revels in horror tropes. The set-piece deaths and blood-drenched grand guignol style recall over-the-top 1973 horror film Theatre of Blood, in which Vincent Price’s disgruntled actor murders his critics. There’s a certain joy in the mix of high art and base depravity, and it’s always fun to see A-list celebs offed in extravagant ways, but most of the murders aren’t that memorable.
Velvet Buzzsaw is also similar to an episode of the darkly humorous British anthology show Inside No. 9, in which the attendees of an art show are picked off one by one. There, the twist is that the victims shared a grim connection with the artist. But if you’re expecting a twist from Velvet Buzzsaw it never really materialises.
Other elements of the story are also undercooked. The plot is kicked off by Josephina literally stumbling upon the dead man, which is a rather flat coincidence on which to hang the whole plot. Instead of peeling back layers of suspense around the mysterious artist, Gilroy has a private eye turn up halfway through to explain everything and then disappear. And it feels like the various victims are bumped off before they go to the interesting places their characters might have suggested.
Ultimately, Velvet Buzzsaw lacks the savagery seen in Nightcrawler’s scathing critique of the news industry. Pretentious art snobs are a pretty easy target, and not particularly vital or timely for today’s audience. Perhaps Gilroy should have gone less velvet and more buzzsaw.