There’s a moment early on in Velvet Buzzsaw, the new film from writer/director Dan Gilroy, when Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) is justifying his negative thoughts on a piece of art.
“A bad review is better than sinking into the great glut of anonymity,” he says to two women. His point being that taking risks is still better and more memorable than being conventional. I thought about this quote after seeing Velvet Buzzsaw. Is the movie good? Not particularly. But is it unique? Most certainly.
The film follows a group of ostentatious people in the contemporary art scene with names like Damrish, Piers and Cloudio. Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo) is trying to find the next great collection for her gallery. But when her assistant, Josephina (Zawe Ashton), comes across a massive collection from an unknown artist who recently died, everyone is clamoring to get a piece of it. What they don’t know is that this discovery unleashes a supernatural force that enacts revenge on those who have allowed their greed to get in the way of art. In this case, almost everyone.
Gilroy is exploring the idea that commerce and greed exploits great art and creativity. Using these themes, he has created a satirical horror film. It’s an interesting idea, but if you mash up different genres, you risk muddling the storytelling from a tonal standpoint.
Velvet Buzzsaw certainly has some fun moments and Gyllenhaal in particular is having a great time. Whether it’s the bowl cut hair, his very subtle pretentious fake British accent or his constant diatribes, Gyllenhaal shows his versatility as an actor. One very funny scene has him admonishing the color choice of a casket at a funeral.
But the problem is, Gilroy doesn’t go far enough in either the satirical side or the horror side. The opening scene presents these characters as people who no longer care about or appreciate art and simply see it as a way to make money. But once the supernatural element is introduced, the movie ceases to be about the value of art and instead becomes a series of creative ways to pick off characters one by one.
And the death scenes are creative in a Final Destination sort of way. One scene has a character being literally swallowed up by the bleeding colors of a few paintings. Another character dies by way of a hobo robot. That’s right. A hobo robot. The movie can be very silly at times.
A movie like American Psycho perfectly balances satire and horror because there’s a central character, Patrick Bateman, who is the audience’s guide. Even Gilroy’s previous film, Nightcrawler, works because it focuses on one man’s ambition to make it in America through the lens of seedy voyeurism and exploitation.
You strangely root for characters like Patrick Bateman and Lou Bloom even though they are doing horrible things. I didn’t care about anyone in Velvet Buzzsaw and Gilroy doesn’t really want us to after he criticizes all of them in the opening scene. Gyllenhaal at least knows what kind of movie he’s in, but even his arc goes nowhere.
The irony is that the film just isn’t very compelling on a visual level. Nightcrawler is so memorable, besides Gyllenhaal’s performance, because of the way Gilroy shoots Los Angeles at night. It’s one of the best visual representations of a city ever put to film.
Velvet Buzzsaw is mostly people talking in rooms and unless you’re David Fincher, it’s usually not going to be captivating. This movie should have urgency and momentum and yet it just ends up feeling like the rough draft of an interesting idea for a story.
What is art and how do we value it? Gilroy comments on this multiple times in the film. A so-called expert mistakes a pile of trash for art. A group of people walk through a dead body mistaking it as being part of the instillation. A piece is worth six figures to one person and $5 from another. These are interesting ideas to explore.
But Gilroy’s vision for Velvet Buzzsaw is to be a slasher movie with something to say. That we should appreciate art for art’s sake rather than it be something we buy and sell. You have to admire him for trying something different, but the execution is ultimately unsatisfying.
Velvet Buzzsaw is available on Netflix.