VELVET BUZZSAW ½
No MPAA rating, 112 mins.
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
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
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
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
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.
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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