A film review by Craig J. Koban February 18, 2019

VELVET BUZZSAW j
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2019, No MPAA rating, 112 mins.

 

Jake Gyllenhaal as Morf Vandewalt  /  Rene Russo as Rhodora Haze  /  Toni Collette as Gretchen  /  Zawe Ashton as Josephina  /  Tom Sturridge as Jon Dondon  /  Natalia Dyer as Coco  /  Billy Magnussen as Bryson  /  John Malkovich as Piers  /  Daveed Diggs as Damrish

Written and directed by Dan Gilroy

 

 

 

ORIGINAL FILM

On paper, VELVET BUZZSAW should have been a grand slam home run.  

It contains the writer/director and stars of NIGHTCRAWLER in Dan Gilroy, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Rene Russo respectively and features subject matter that's absolutely ripe for nail biting satire: the world of the uber pretentious and self-aggrandizing contemporary L.A. art world and criticism.  

Early on, VELVET BUZZSAW - which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and is now streaming on Netflix - gets off to a splendid beginning by introducing and chronicling the lives of the egomaniacal, hyper literate, but ultimately shallow and soulless backstabbers that would sell their own mothers if it meant getting ahead of the other.  Mournfully, the open promise of Gilroy's film is all but undone by the manner that he segues away from scathing art world commentary and into the pure supernatural, which leads to VELVET BUZZSAW suffering from tonal whiplash. 

It's all too bad, indeed, because Gilroy and Gyllenhaal in particular were such a dynamic force to be reckoned with in NIGHTCRAWLER, the writer/director's brilliantly macabre and enthralling take on the oftentimes sadistic world of late-night crime and accident chasing video journalists that all try to sell their most salacious footage to the highest network bidder.  In a way, VELVET BUZZSAW shares a common thread with that 2014 film: Despite having different subjects and visual styles, both Gilroy films showcase morally bankrupt degenerates - albeit on different ends of the class and wealth ladder - that are all looking to do whatever it takes to make a quick buck and a name for themselves.  NIGHTCRAWLER embedded itself into the scummy world of amateur TV news cameramen that fed into the larger world of ratings and personal fortune.  VELVET BUZZSAW embeds itself into artists, art critics, agents, and gallery owners that all, in their own unique way, commodify and put a dollar value on that which they claim to respect and covet.  Gilroy's newest film is juicy in its ambitiousness and noteworthy for its thematic similarities to NIGHTCRAWLER, making them intriguing companion films.  But just imagine, if you will, if the latter mentioned film heavily dabbled into horror genre troupes and tried to deliver on a mystical possession angle?  It would have proved extremely distracting, as it disappointingly does here with VELVET BUZZSAW. 

 

 

Still, the performances are all resoundingly on point, even when Gilroy's schizophrenic screenplay frequently does them no favors.  Russo plays Rhodora, a tough as nails and take no prisoner L.A. art gallery owner that was once a leading member of a rock band called, yup, Velvet Buzzsaw.  The film opens in Miami as she attends a local exhibit, hoping to spot the next big and up and coming artist, and seeing as she's an absolute intimidating force in the larger art world, there's literally no stopping her.  Also at the show is her bisexual friend and art critic Morf (Gyllenhaal), who take his job and his ability to make and break careers with one review as serious as a proverbial heart attack.  Morf is somewhat confused about his orientation, which leads to him having a hetero fling with Josephina (Zawe Ashton), who is one of Rhodora's underlings that's desperately trying to climb the art world ladder and make her stone cold employer treat her with respect. 

One fateful night back home in L.A. Josephina makes the secret find of the art world: One of her apartment neighbors, Ventril Dease, has died under suspicious means, and after snooping in his abandoned and disastrously messy suite she discovers his paintings, which are equal parts haunting and hallucinatory.  Realizing that this once in a lifetime find of a now deceased artist could be the key to her occupational success, Josephina decides to secretly take the collection and sell them to the highest bidders, but Rhodora finds out, much to her anger and frustration, and decides to broker deals herself.  Then Morf comes in contact with the pieces and becomes predictably mesmerized by their nightmarish imagery, and he takes it upon himself to research who this enigmatic artist was and where he came from.  Revelations about Dease's past comes up, including the murder of his father and his growing and ever-escalating mental illness as a result.  Then, Dease's paintings, shall we say, take on a demonic life of their own and make everyone's lives built around profiting from them a living hell. 

You can sense very early on that Gilroy is partially inspired by the works of Bret Easton Ellis, especially AMERICAN PSYCHO, which dealt with fanatically narcisstic yuppie Wall Streeter that also happened to be a serial killer in his spare time (VELVET BUZZSAW's opening title montage even contains musical cues that echoes a similar one in AMERICAN PSYCHO).  Ellis tackled how empty minded consumerism and the allure of owning material possessions fundamentally helped fuel the fire of his murderous sociopath, and Gilroy, I think, is aiming for similar beats here in delving into how everyone involved in the larger art world has their humanity stripped away daily by their wanton desires to own and possess the art within their crosshairs.  There are also themes present in VELVET BUZZSAW about assigning value on art with dollar signs and prestige first over any aesthetic value, which negatively cheapens the paintings as art forms to be admired and decoded.  One could easily make the claim that Gilroy's targets presented here aren't all that sympathetic and are perhaps easy to take cheap shots at, but witnessing these inordinately and sometimes hilariously high strung pseudo intellectuals get completely bent out of shape about something as basically petty as their gallery pieces is a hoot.  In a way, VELVET BUZZSAW is kind out outrageously hysterical at times as it emerges as a comical horror film about the vapid lifestyles of these self-centered souls.   

Maybe that's why it's so damn unsatisfying to see Gilroy loses touch with what could have been a real incendiary art world piece that mocks these disgusting elitists and instead devolves into a pretty perfunctory horror thriller replete with shock scares.  Gilroy's talents are abundant, to be sure, but tapping successfully into the supernatural horror genre seems kind of hopelessly out of his wheelhouse.  There's nothing inherently wrong with filmmakers daring to occupy a space outside of their comfort zones, but VELVET BUZZSAW is a film that feels like too many disjointed and incongruent films all crammed unconfidently together.  If you're going to make a thriller about paintings that come to possess and kill their owners, then just hone in on that.  Gilroy's film tries to be too many things all at once, and the way it awkwardly hops back and forth between lampooning art world superficiality and being a blood splattered horror fest shows just how clunky his execution is here overall.   

There are also way too many characters all trying to vie for attention in an extremely crowded narrative.  Some characters are hastily introduced, then disappear, only then to reappear for a few oddly shoehorned in segments that don't amount to much, like John Malkovich showing up here and there as a once gifted artist who needs a new fangled lease on his life, or Toni Collette's museum operator that finds herself in competition with Rhodora (there are times when she pops back up in the story and I frankly forgot she was even in the film).  Structure is a nagging problem throughout this bloated film, with Gilroy trying inconsistently to make all of his plot tangents come together with reasonably smoothness.  Where he makes up for in terms of scripting sloppiness is in the film's visual look, and he re-teamed with NIGHTCRAWLER cinematographer Robert Elswit to make a bright and opulent hued landscape that serves as the antithesis to the dark noirish imagery of NIGHTCRAWLER.  And as far as horror films go, very few are as candy colored as VELVET BUZZSAW, so Gilroy at least deserves points for going against the stylistic genre grain. 

There are parts of VELVET BUZZSAW that I tremendously admired, and Gilroy does a stellar job early on in introducing us to this lurid world of art, commerce, and the intersection of all of these damned personas that conduct themselves without any scruples or sense of decency (plus, Gyllenhaal - who I haven't talked about nearly enough here - is in as fine of form as even playing his lofty art critic that gives new meaning to the word smug).  Unfortunately, VELVET BUZZSAW takes too many scripting and tonal detours and feels like the product of too many cooks in its creative kitchen.  There's a masterfully executed satire buried deep within VELVET BUZZSAW that sometimes comes through, only to be pushed back down and subjugated when Gilroy allows for the story to fall victim B-grade slasher troupes.  The whole enterprise is ambitious, but unavoidably sort of hollow...ironically as hollow as the people that populate this film

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