Velvet Buzzsaw is the latest film from director/writer Dan Gilroy, whose last film was 2017’s Roman J. Israel, Esq. He’s joined here by the lead actors from his 2014 psychological thriller, Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo. Buzzsaw takes a dark look at the fine art industry, just as Nightcrawler did with broadcast news. The result is just under two hours of witty satire, impeccable performances, and a pretty lackluster ghost story.
Without spoiling anything in the story, the film centers around the fine art scene and all of it’s dark melodrama. The film begins by introducing us to art critic Mort Vanderwalt, his agent Josephina, and art gallery owner Rhodora Haze. Not too long after the introduction, Josephina finds a man named Vetril Dease dead in her apartment building. Not too long after his death she wanders into his home, which is full of impressive artwork. Josephina brings these paintings to Mort who is blown away by their intense visionary qualities. Soon the paintings catch the attention of everyone in their art circle and they all want a piece of Dease. This is where things start to get scary – well, at least where they’re supposed to.
Velvet Buzzsaw has a fun first twenty minutes or so, poking fun at the fine art scene with wicked glee. The film is a successful showcase of unintentionally hilarious that pretentious people can be – particularly artistic people or critics. The film has a (rather creepy) art piece called the “Hoboman” robot. Someone describes this piece as so timely and impactful that you can “feel the winds of the apocalypse”. To my delight Gilroy has written these characters snobbish to the point of hilarity. It’s a treat watching the cast discuss the world of art in endless hyperbole and outrageous quips. The fun doesn’t last forever though as the film slows down immensely after about thirty minutes.
When Josephina finds the paintings of Dease, the film takes a hard turn for the worse. A once sharp dark comedy turns into a generic, messy horror film over a plodding middle chapter of the story. People start dying off one-by-one without much tension or creativity involved – it just sort of happens. Even the fact that there are haunted paintings killing people can’t make this more entertaining. Predictability plagues Velvet Buzzsaw – every death or “twist” is easily foreseeable as the film slowly drifts into B-movie territory.
The film feels a lot longer than it’s just under two-hour runtime. The last thirty minutes or so pummels you with a ton of mindless horror to wrap up the film. The third act feels both overstuffed and hollow, a lot happens but nothing here works in an effective way. Gilroy stretched the second act to it’s limit and rushed the third act to make up for it.
While the directing and writing fall almost completely flat, the cast showed up to play hard ball. Jake Gyllenhaal is sensational here – taking his acting chops to the next level as the over-the-top Mort. He showcases a wildly unhinged electricity here, matched by few other actors. A pure force of nature, Gyllenhaal is the only real reason to check out this movie.
Rene Russo is deliciously cold in this movie, her Rhodora is dark with no qualms about being ruthless in business. A massively underused Toni Colette brings a fun edge to the screen when she’s on it. The only poor casting choice is Zawe Ashton, whose Josephina is inoffensive but lackluster compared to everyone around her. The character comes across as dull and emotionless, which is a shame considering how much of the film she’s in.
Velvet Buzzsaw makes sense for Netflix to have picked up, it’s a perfect match for the streaming service. Netflix has a reputation for having few high quality projects and then dumping several mediocre offerings to expand their catalogue. It has enough intrigue and star power to draw you in but ultimately fails to keep you interested. Buzzsaw has a few strong elements but overall struggles due to its lack of cohesion or depth. It’s not the worst thing you’ll ever see if you decide to watch, but it’s certainly no work of art.