REVIEW: Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

Release Poster – Netflix

The following is a review of Velvet Buzzsaw — Directed by Dan Gilroy.

In 2014, Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut — Nightcrawler — became a hit with critics and audiences alike. It gave us a brilliant and rivetingly unhinged performance from its leading man, Jake Gyllenhaal, and it showed us that Dan Gilroy was a supremely talented filmmaker.

With his second directorial effort, Roman J. Israel, Esq., Gilroy stumbled a bit, even though that film had another committed lead performance — this time from Denzel Washington. Now, Gilroy and Gyllenhaal have reteamed for a horror film about the art world with Netflix’s Velvet Buzzsaw, and, though it isn’t quite a return to form, it shows us that Gilroy is perfectly capable of having fun with his art.

Dan Gilroy’s Velvet Buzzsaw is an art world thriller with satirical elements about the discovery and unveiling of a mysterious deceased artist’s paintings. Art critic Morf Vandewalt (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) becomes obsessed with the paintings, and they inspire him to pursue the exclusive rights to the artists’ life story.

Curators and art advisers — Rene Russo and Toni Collette’s characters — alike see a lot of potential in the work, and they pounce at the opportunity to sell and own the works of art. Artists are entranced by the work which has a life to it, unlike anything they’re able to produce themselves. The art, however, has a life of its own, and that is not just a figure of speech. The deceased artist’s work makes paintings reach for onlookers and art exhibits all but devour those who take part in them.

When the first trailer for Velvet Buzzsaw was released less than a month ago, it quickly became a trending topic on social media. It showed us a batshit crazy blend from a director who was working with beloved actors to give us something truly exciting and different on our television screens soon. The release day is here, and, even though Gilroy’s particular blend of art, satire, and thriller is right up my alley, the result is not exactly as exciting as the much too revealing trailer made it seem.

Velvet Buzzsaw — like Gilroy’s directorial debut — is a film about the people of Los Angeles. With Nightcrawler, he made a pitch-black thriller about the relationship between disaster and local news media. With Velvet Buzzsaw, writer-director Dan Gilroy has taken a stab at commenting on the relationship between the art world, criticism of art, and commerce.

Thematically, it is in Gilroy’s wheelhouse, but the film is very much unlike what we’ve seen from Gilroy before. It operates somewhere in-between Ruben Östlund’s intelligent and absurd The Square and Tom Ford’s incredibly tense and, at times, terrifying Nocturnal Animals — both of which are great films about people that inhabit the art world.

To me, however, it seemed like Gilroy hadn’t made a conscious decision about which direction, genre, and tone he wanted to lean into. At its worst, Velvet Buzzsaw is unfocused, predictable, and hollow. It could’ve been a fascinating satire about the art world, and it could’ve been a tense horror film, but Gilroy has overextended himself and made something less than fully effective.

The joy of watching this film was, to me, all about seeing these beloved actors playing these sometimes cartoonish but always colorful central characters played by Toni Collette, Rene Russo, and Jake Gyllenhaal.

M. Night Shyamalan will be the first to tell you that putting a critic in your film can backfire enormously once critics get to see the product. However, you may get bonus points if you cast Jake Gyllenhaal to play the self-obsessed and passionless critic character. Gyllenhaal is able to make Morf delightfully deranged and deliciously pompous, and it is so much fun watching Gyllenhaal fall to pieces as his overly critical character loses his mind.

In Velvet Buzzsaw, we see a critic trying to tear down a previously undiscovered piece of art, because it messes with his head, and, as a result, the art that he has previously ripped to shreds with his reviews is looking for its revenge. This narrative thread could easily be read as an attempt by Gilroy to try to criticize critics who disliked his last film, but I don’t think the filmmaker is deliberately trying to tear anyone down. His film comments on the intersection between criticism, profit, and art. The film is more so about a curious relationship than about pointing the finger at any group in particular.

In any event, I do wish the horror movie logic would have been made more clear here. Though there are some ‘fun’ character deaths, not all of them make sense to me. Sure, the art comes to life and tries to take the life of onlookers, but, at one point, a mere .jpeg freezes a phone that then initiates a death sequence. That seems like a cheat, but, then again, the tattoo scene was so hilarious and absurd that I’m, sort of, willing to look past that.

Dan Gilroy’s Velvet Buzzsaw is a strange film that I had a lot of fun with. Though it does seem like Gilroy didn’t exactly know whether he wanted to make a smart and cutting film about the art world or a fun horror film about that world, the end result is undeniably watchable even if it isn’t quite as effective or thought-provoking as I wanted it to be.

6 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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