Back in 2014, screenwriter Dan Gilroy made a fantastic directorial debut with the supremely underrated and overlooked thriller, Nightcrawler, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, in which he gave a tour-de-force performance. Following a lackluster follow-up in Roman J. Israel, ESQ, Gilroy has returned this year with a very unique feature. Possibly one of the first ever horror satires of the art world, Velvet Buzzsaw is a deep dive inside the snobby and shallow realm of modern art and the greed that comes with it. The film demonstrates the range Gilroy possesses; whereas Nightcrawler was a gritty story that relied on intellectual ecstasies, Velvet Buzzsaw is a hilarious take on the toll that capitalist tendencies can take on the simplicity and beautiful nature of art… and… it also happens to include an incredibly high murder count.
Velvet Buzzsaw takes place in a colourful and creative Los Angeles, centering on a group of truly ridiculous characters. Morf Vandewalt (Gyllenhaal) is an esteemed (but now-struggling) critic who can still make or break careers. Rhodora Haza (Rene Russo) is a punk rocker-turned-art gallery owner who would rather continue to get rich than truly appreciate the art. Along for the ride is Josephina (Zawe Ashton), a receptionist who longs for something more, Gretchen (Toni Collette), a consultant for a private buyer, and Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge), Rhodora’s main competition. After a series of paintings by an unknown artist are discovered by Josephina, a supernatural force enacts revenge on those who have allowed their greed to get in the way of art.
Gilroy takes his time introducing every character, including smaller supporting roles from Stranger Things’ Natalie Dyer, Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs and John Malkovich. In doing so, the audience is not necessarily able to identify with any character, but instead, learn why most of them deserve a gruesome and creative death. The group that decides to profit off of this mysterious artist’s work is largely made up of repulsive people who can never see how ridiculous they are being.
One scene in particular finds Gyllenhaal’s Morf and Ashton’s Josephina at a funeral, where instead of mourning the victim, they proceed to criticize the colour and layout of the casket! These are heartless characters who do not care about the beauty found within art, but rather, their focus is more on how to exhibit it and make a profit. Their main goal in life is to simply become more and more famous, never thinking twice about the methods used to achieve it. Their main motivation is the lust for fame and recognition – the desire to be remembered long after they are gone, regardless of the methods, regardless of the social codes, and regardless of the people they hurt while chasing their capitalistic deification.
This is where Gilroy is able to pastiche genres and styles, creating his own unique piece of art. Velvet Buzzsaw’s greatest strength is that it never takes itself too seriously. Gilroy showcases deaths in a rather gruesome fashion, but it is never for the purpose of achieving some higher intellectual position on what art should be. Instead, he aims to present a hilarious take on what happens when you forget what matters most. It isn’t always about the money or the analysis, a notion evidenced by Daveed Diggs’ character motivations later on in the third act.
One of the film’s funniest moments comes in the second act, where a murdered, bloody body lays on the floor in a museum and everyone mistakes it for just another project. It is the outrageous moments like these that allows audiences to experience hilarity at the expense of the art observers who take everything so seriously, but also, to read into the subtext Gilroy is presenting.
As mentioned above, the deaths in Velvet Buzzsaw are incredibly gruesome and it is where most of the horror elements of the story can be found. Gilroy expertly builds the tension in the atmosphere as we watch each character enter a seemingly familiar but mysterious circumstance that can be easily telegraphed to anticipate their impending demise. But, while predictability might be a negative connotation to some, here, Gilroy uses it to his advantage. Since the audience knows that these characters will die, he is able to get immensely creative with how certain characters go out. Like John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper before him, Gilroy makes it very apparent that each death setting is unsettling and should not be messed with, making it even more entertaining when a character willfully ignores all the warning signs.
The cast in the film is delectably revolting and hilariously over-the-top, with Gyllenhaal being the best of the bunch. He embodies the frantic, bleak-but-quirky Mort perfectly, disappearing into the role as if he was a chameleon. Rene Russo is aggravatingly perfect as Rhodora, in the sense that, in every scene, it’s hard not to hate the character. Russo’s performance is superb, never once showing remorse for her decisions that gravely impact the rest of the art group. Zawe Ashton is stellar as Josephine, beginning as a sympathetic character but slowly evolving into a greedy and cold creature that becomes corrupted by the capitalist underbelly of art. Finally, the delightful Toni Collette rounds out the main cast. In every scene, she hams it up like no other, embracing the superficiality that comes with her ridiculous wig-wearing gallery owner so perfectly.
Velvet Buzzsaw is a blast from start to finish. It is a slasher movie that does not shy away from hilarious undertones, but it also contains a meaningful message. Art should never be only about the money, but instead, the creativity that stems from the artist’s mind. So much time is invested in introducing these characters, but, it is not for the purpose of fleshing them out for a meaningful character arc like a redemption story. It is to have you so invested in hating them that by the end, you’re championing Gilroy’s incredibly creative death sequences. It’s an immensely fun but terrifying adventure that features stunning direction and fantastic performances that makes for Gilroy’s most ambitious and cynical project yet.
Rating – 8.5/10
Velvet Buzzsaw hits Netflix on February 1, 2019