It’s probably wrong to describe Dan Gilroy’s Velvet Buzzsaw as pretentious when it knows it is. This satirical take on artistic expression (or what people think artistic expression means) is certainly eye-catching and fascinating, when it’s not actively trying to repel you. More of an indictment against criticism than the nature of art itself, it’s hard to say anything against the movie without imagining Dan Gilroy somewhere saying, “See, this is what the movie’s ALL about,” but it is a tough sell. The cast is game and does some fantastic work, but it’s a movie that revels in being standoffish while simultaneously using that as an excuse to all those who don’t like it.
Gilroy doesn’t just rip the Band-aid off, he cuts your arm and pours alcohol on it, throwing the audience into the Los Angeles art scene with absolutely no proper introduction. Characters snootily talk about who’s leaving who in a breathless banter that comes off like their speaking a foreign language. It’s quickly evident that the protagonist is Jake Gyllenhaal’s Morf Vanderwalt, a critic who is vaunted to God-like status by the people he works around. He works opposite artist manager/gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Renee Russo), believing the two are “in sync” in their artistic interests, while being drawn to the beautiful and manipulative Josephina (Zawe Ashton).
Josephina is having a terrible week, discovering her boyfriend is cheating on her and that her job is at stake. When an old man dies in her building she finds out the deceased was an artist, who left explicit instructions that his work be destroyed. Seeing an opportunity to further her own career, she saves the man’s art. Rhodora is fascinated with the pieces and purchases them, turning the obscure artist Ventril Dease into a superstar. But things turn to the graphic when Dease’s paintings start having bizarre effects on everyone, leaving a string of dead bodies in their wake.
The comparisons to Nocturnal Animals are obvious, but they’re really surface comparisons. Both movies deal with the art world, though Tom Ford’s feature uses it more tangentially (unless the comparison is meant to be on the nature of film that touts itself as artistic, but I don’t think that’s happening here). Velvet Buzzsaw is about enmeshing the audience in its weird, nonsensical world and asking them “what do you think?” A better comparison might be Nicolas Winding Refn’s divisive Neon Demon, which also blends the aesthetically beautiful, pretentious, and grotesque to make a movie that people will either outright despise or revere.
Gyllenhaal, affecting a fey demeanor that’s meant to throw audiences off to a character who is presumably sexually fluid, appears to be having a lot of fun in the role, but it’s hard not to wonder if his performance itself borders on good taste. He certainly has fun as the effete critic, and when the movie takes a turn for the frightening he genuinely conveys the horror of wondering if Dease’s work is cursed. The rest of the cast is equally fantastic in roles that border on the fringe between broadly comical and satirical. Zawe Ashton isn’t a household name, but she conjures up some serious film noir vibes as Josephina. Interestingly her character is reminiscent of Gyllenhaal’s in Nightcrawler as the driven person who is literally willing to kill for what they want. In this case, Josephina enjoys the prestige and acclaim that comes from discovering a hidden master and doesn’t care if the paintings are associated with murder.
But the true scene-stealer, as she usually is, is Rene Russo. Russo is tough as nails on the outside but gives Rhodora hidden vulnerabilities. A woman who seemingly lives alone with her hairless cat, Rhodora is sad and lonely. At one point she sits in an art installation mimicking a family scene and the audience watches Russo soak it in, a stand-in for the family and life she doesn’t have. Is Gilroy making a commentary that women who are single at her age are lonely that I found irritating? He is. But thankfully Russo refuses to let the character feel like a bitter shrew, even if she’s written that way. Daveed Diggs is criminally underutilized as a burgeoning artist and it really feels like he was filming in the area and wanted to work with Dan Gilroy however possible. The same can be said for Toni Collette. The problem is these performers are expected to be good, yet their roles are so minor that anyone could fill them. It’s a star-studded cast but no real utilization of their starpower.
This could explain why Velvet Buzzsaw feels so haphazard. The first twenty minutes are a slow build, though the characters are so underwritten it’s not clear what’s being built in the first place. Once the paintings start doing their work things become fun and engaging because stuff is happening. Blood is being shed and no one can look away from a car crash in progress. And yet when everything comes to a close it all seems so meaningless, and it seems like that might be Gilroy’s point? That or he just didn’t know how to end things. This isn’t a movie like Nocturnal Animals or Neon Demon that leave the audience with an introspective scene or moment of pure terror. It just ends.
I’ve been trying to figure out if I enjoyed this movie for a day and a half, and the answer is: I don’t know. Things seem so ill-defined and that could very well be Gilroy’s point, but I don’t believe it is. If anything I think this is a movie where Gilroy wants to say critics deserve all the pain they get for hurting the poor, tortured artist who bears his soul on celluloid, and if that’s the case than I got a whole other article I could write. In the end, I just enjoyed watching the actors perform and looking at some truly fucked-up art. Can’t say I enjoyed the movie, though.