Velvet Buzzsaw is Dan Gilroy’s third directorial effort and sees him reuniting with Nightcrawler alumni Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo. Nightcrawler was a seedy, darkly comic delight, as Gyllenhaal trawled the streets of L.A. in search of salacious traffic accident material, with a script that spun his moral compass as if exposed to magnetism. In between, Gilroy wrote and directed Roman J. Israel, Esq. (with Denzel Washington) and co-wrote the screenplay for the hugely enjoyable Kong: Skull Island. So with such a diverse and enjoyable pedigree, it’s fair to say expectations were high for Velvet Buzzsaw’s Netflix debut.
Pompous art critic Morf Vandewalt’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) endorsements are highly sought after. He is a man with the power to make or break artists in the Los Angeles art world. So when Morf’s girlfriend Josephina (Zawe Ashton) comes to the aid of a dying man, Vetril Dease (Alan Mandell), and discovers a huge amount of artwork in his apartment, she shows it to him and her boss Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo) believing she has discovered a massive unknown talent. With the weight of Morf’s influence and Rhodora’s gallery behind it, Dease’s work sets the art world alight and becomes a huge success. Shortly after this success however, the owners of the paintings start to die under mysterious circumstances.
Velvet Buzzsaw is part art world satire, part supernatural horror movie. Unfortunately, it lacks the dark humour and sophistication of Nightcrawler, and struggles to retain interest as it sets its sights on a world that is just too unidentifiable to produce much sympathy or understanding from an audience.
There’s nothing so bad as to be offensive here, but there is very little that’s memorable about Velvet Buzzsaw. There is a disconnect between the horror elements, which are rather unthreatening, and the rest of the film which meanders along at a very vague and pedestrian pace. The art world satire is disappointingly basic, with some very average jokes about people mistaking everyday objects for art. Unless we’re missing the point and the movie has gone so meta that it’s satirising satire, this old chestnut is on page one of the Dad Joke Book. You’d really expect a bit more than this with the calibre of people involved.
There’s also no tension in the film due to the complete reluctance to explore any part of the supernatural side. There’s a link between ownership of the art and grisly demise, but the movie never stops to ask why? We explore Vetril Dease’s backstory, but it doesn’t connect to the strange goings on beyond assumption and coincidence, and the characters make these deductions without much to back it up. There’s nothing wrong with ambiguity of course, or leaving things to the audience’s imagination, but the Velvet Buzzsaw approach comes across more like disinterest. The ghostly element is introduced but never unpacked, so there is no real ‘horror’ to this story and the audience is left completely unable to reconcile the satirical with the supernatural.
On the plus side, there’s nothing to fault in the performances. Gyllenhaal plays it weird and slightly preoccupied with Morf. For a man with such clout, there is a certain meekness to him that brings to mind his turn in Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy. Russo is also very good as Rhodora, which comes as no surprise to anyone. Toni Collette is one of Buzzsaw’s genuine highlights as ambitious art advisor Gretchen and Stranger Things’ Natalia Dyer has one of the more fun parts as p.a. / corpse discoverer Coco.
But this is really Velvet Buzzsaw in a nutshell: the component parts are good, but as a whole it is underwhelming. It’s not even that Velvet Buzzsaw is terrible, it’s that it had all the hallmarks of being something quite interesting and the reality is that it is almost immediately forgettable.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★☆☆☆
‘Velvet Buzzsaw’ is available for streaming on Netflix. You can watch it right HERE.