The modern art world is the subject of Dan Gilroy’s satire in Velvet Buzzsaw, a horror-comedy which sees the acclaimed filmmaker become the latest big name to make the jump to Netflix. The story is set in Los Angeles’ upmarket art community and follows a group of greedy players whose values have been compromised by their pursuit of self-gain. The movie is more entertaining than it is scary, but Gilroy is clearly channeling some frustrations towards a culture that’s lost its way.
Speaking to Vanity Fair, the writer-director revealed that the movie was inspired by the soulless commercialization of the modern art world. He believes that people no longer appreciate the true essence of what art should be.
“Any time you listen to a piece of music or look at a sculpture or a painting or a film, you realize the artists behind that have invested what I believe to be their creative soul into the work. To me, that’s a bit of a sacred thing and I think we’ve lost that a little bit. I would love it if we could return to that.”
Thus far, the response has been mixed as to whether Gilroy gets his message across effectively. Still, Gilroy’s presentation of the art world as a dog-eat-dog farce does pack some interesting food for thought.
The horror begins when Josephina (Zawe Ashton) senses an opportunity to revitalize her failing career. Her boss, Rhodora (Rene Russo), has lost faith in the young protege and she’s badly in need of a boost. So, when she discovers the powerful paintings of her recently-deceased neighbor, Dease (Alan Mandell), she steals them under the illusion that his art will fix her problems. Little does Josephina know that her problems are just beginning.
Before she puts her plans in motion, however, Josephina takes the paintings to her lover, Morf (Jake Gyllenhaal), for a second opinion. He’s the most influential art critic in the city, but he’s also so hopelessly in love with Josephina that he’s willing to do anything to help her get her way. This will be his downfall later on.
Of course, Rhodora also sees the potential for profits in Dease’s work and strikes a deal with Josephina that will make both of them rich. When they eventually share his work with their peers and buyers, it becomes the hottest topic in the art world. One person who’s particularly enamored with the paintings is Piers (John Malkovich), an addict and an artist who’s lost his spark.
For a while, Rhodora and Josephina’s plan seems full-proof. At least it does until the people around them start dying.
The first to go is Bryson (Billy Magnussen), a gallery worker with his own artistic ambitions. Rhodora and Josephina order the low-level employee to take some of Dease’s paintings to storage so that they can be sold at a later day for a hefty price. While en route to the facility, however, he gets into a car accident and is subsequently murdered by a monkey painting in a gas station.
Here, it established that the paintings are cursed and the malevolent force that possesses them is out to kill everyone who’s entangled in Rhodora and Josephina’s scheme. Other deaths include Jon (Tom Sturridge), a rival who wants to break Dease’s story to the press; Gretchen (Toni Collette), a curator and sneaky private buyer. Afterward, the killer art comes calling for Josephina, Morf, and finally, Rhodora (who learns that even the art on her own body isn’t safe from the curse).
Of course, the big question is: why is art killing everyone? Well, it turns out that Dease was a tortured soul in life. He spent many years in a mental institution before living quietly as a janitor upon release. In his downtime, though, he painted and literally put his blood into his works. That explains the supernatural activity.
Every death in Velvet Buzzsaw is the result of artistic creations that the characters come into contact with. We learn that the vengeful spirit is capable of unleashing carnage through any drawing or painting, regardless of whether Dease created them. Basically, art literally gets its payback against those who’ve used it for their own selfish gain.
Before her death, Rhodora ordered the destruction of Dease’s art, as well as every painting, drawing, and pamphlet in her household. But the paintings lived on. The end of the film reveals that Dease’s masterpieces are now being sold on the street for $5 a pop. While this suggests that the chaos will continue to affect people who use his paintings to prosper, the movie ends on an optimistic note as well.
The final shot depicts a painting of a sunset and kids playing on the beach. It’s a beautiful piece that symbolizes hope for the future of art and indicates that folks who genuinely love the medium will be left unharmed. The people we see purchase his work from a street seller admire it for its splendor and nothing else. They’re going to be fine.
The end credits also cut to Piers, now living by the sea, drawing symbols in the sand with a stick. Piers, a fellow artist, was one of the few characters in the movie who admired Dease’s paintings without an ulterior motive in mind. They also inspired him to escape from the art world and its awful inhabitants.
Gilroy is out to critique the art world with this movie, but if the ending tells us anything, it’s that he still believes in authentic artists. At the end of the day, art should be about baring your soul — not selling it.