The art world’s motley crew of collectors, institutions, critics, and the like are easy targets for satire and ridicule as, among other reasons, they pretend to know the definitive value of things that have actually none of their own. Art is “worth” what someone is willing to pay for it, and it’s a subjective journey to that destination despite what some might suggest. 2017’s brilliant The Square tackles them with brutal wit and darkly comic insights, but now a new film has arrived for viewers allergic to subtitles but seeking the same commentary. Velvet Buzzsaw doesn’t really deliver as well on the smart and insightful front, but writer/director Dan Gilroy makes it clear that’s not even remotely his focus.
We’re introduced to the high-priced art scene at a Miami gallery showing as Los Angeles’ premiere critic, Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) weaves his way through the riff-raff to tear down and praise artistic efforts. He’s equally feared and revered, but his personal life is enduring some turmoil as he leaves his boyfriend behind to explore his feelings for an acquaintance named Josephina (Zawe Ashton) who’s currently working under a celebrated but cruel agent/gallery owner named Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo). When Josephina discovers a trove of artwork left behind after an old man’s death it’s not long before she realizes it’s a potential goldmine. The newly deceased artist has never shared them with anyone — and left instructions for them to be destroyed — but she has other plans. Everyone who sees the images is drawn towards them and big sales and mass interest follows.
But everyone who profits in some way from their sale and continued existence starts dying in horribly painful ways.
Velvet Buzzsaw — named after Rhodora’s old punk rock band she left behind to become a full-throated capitalist — starts strong as a comedy that’s both pointed and absurd, but once the deaths begin Gilroy starts weaving in scenes and story lines more at home in the horror genre. It’s still far more comedic than horrifying though. The humor is never hard-hitting, but it affords the film an amusingly entertaining feel throughout. The horror elements achieve similar effect as they’re more playful than frightening leaving viewers smiling and slightly thrilled rather than scared or disturbed.
The specifics behind the horror part of the narrative are slight and familiar as cursed objects take a toll on the guilty parties, and while a couple moments paint the screen red with blood — one sequence involving a large, spherical art piece practically screams “Phantasm homage!” — most instead find inspiration in more creative visuals. The dead artist is basically striking out through pieces of art, and it results in some entertaining sequences of art coming to life.
While the comedy and horror beats are a mixed collective of mildly effective laughs and thrills, the film’s greatest draw is its cast. Gyllenhaal is an absolute delight as the constantly on the move critic who takes his craft every bit as seriously as the artists themselves while still leaving plenty of time for catty comments and reflective observations. Russo is a similar joy as a woman who gets what she wants no matter the price, and she’s his equal when it comes to entertainment value. Both actors bring Gilroy’s script to energetic and angry-ish life — they’re frequently animated and upset, but their dramas are trivial interruptions — and they make the material better in the process. Others in the cast aren’t around nearly as much, but it’s fun seeing the likes of John Malkovich, Billy Magnussen, Toni Collette, Daveed Diggs, Pat Healy, and Natalia Dyer.
Gilroy’s script feels at times like a messy mashup of ideas where only the silliest and most obvious stuck through the final draft. Nightcrawler (2014) remains his tightest script (and sharpest directorial effort), and while its conclusions were far from revelations they land with real impact through intensity, conviction, and some brutally honest (and darkly hilarious) characters. Velvet Buzzsaw can’t compete on that front as it’s sloppier and broader in its points. Still, while it’s not a great film destined for museum archives its various elements come together to create an entertaining experience. Your own valuation may vary.