Velvet Buzzsaw splatters a satire of the art world across a Tales from the Crypt-style morality lesson. Although not as gruesomely clever or funny as Tales, it gets in some decent barbs amid its behind-the-scenes backstabbing and bloodletting.
Writer-director Dan Gilroy (Roman J. Israel, Esq.) reunites with Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo of his directorial debut Nightcrawler, which skewered the TV news industry by having a slimy videographer wipe the floor with a broadcast’s morals. In Velvet Buzzsaw, now streaming on Netflix, Gilroy has art on his mind, specifically, whether there can be art for art’s sake, or whether in critiquing it and consuming it, an audience misses the point altogether. It’s a worthwhile question that in Velvet Buzzsaw carries a heavy-handed answer.
Gyllenhaal (The Sisters Brothers) plays Morf, the art critic who prides himself on not bending to anyone’s influence. Morf chomps on his glasses and says meme-worthy bits like, “I further the realm I analyze” and “Critique is so limiting and emotionally draining.” Gyllenhaal’s performance gets better the more unhinged and frantic he becomes.
Morf starts the film involved with a man but soon falls into a relationship with Josephina (Zawe Ashton, TV’s Wanderlust), a fame-hungry assistant working for art dealer Rhodora Haze (Russo, The Intern), a former punk rocker whose band name gives the film its title.
Velvet Buzzsaw takes a bit to find its footing while it introduces its characters, including Toni Collette (Hereditary) as a museum curator, John Malkovich (Bird Box) as an artist afraid he’s lost his muse, and Daveed Diggs (Broadway’s Hamilton) as an up-and-comer afraid of selling out. The film also mistakenly frames Morf as the protagonist, as Gyllenhaal was in Nightcrawler, when here, Josephina drives the plot. She’s the one who finds her dead neighbor’s apartment chock-full of striking but disturbing paintings. She also swipes them upon learning the neighbor had no relatives, so the art is bound for the trash. (A lawyer swiftly advises her to say that’s where she found the paintings in the first place.)
The deceased left strict instructions for his artwork to be destroyed. He also has a creepy backstory complete with an abusive parent, time spent in a mental hospital, and mixing his own blood into his paints. It’s not long before anyone who sees a fast fortune in his artwork meets an unnatural death.
The cursed paintings shift and move in a trick-of-the-light kind of way that’s eerie enough, but viewers may find themselves questioning how this curse works after a while. It’s not confined just to the deceased’s paintings but infects other art near its various targets. (The credits list art department veteran Saxon Brice of Station to Station and graffiti artist Banksy as creating Velvet Buzzsaw’s original artwork.)
The deaths are a mixed bag as far as irony. One person vanishes while another becomes absorbed into artwork itself. Velvet Buzzsaw doesn’t go for tons of laughs, but it has some fun with Natalia Dyer (Netflix’s Stranger Things) as a gallery assistant cursed in her own way with finding the bodies.
The art world setting, which kicks off at Miami Beach’s premier Art Basel show, is immersive. The cast is game, and Velvet Buzzsaw lands enough sharp observations to cement Gilroy as a filmmaker with something to say, even if subtlety isn’t his strong suit.