Director: Dan Gilroy
Screenplay: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Collette, Zawe Ashton, Tom Sturridge, Natalia Dyer, Daveed Diggs, Billy Magnussen, John Malkovich
Runtime: 113 Minutes
The state of the contemporary art world, especially that concerning modern art, is ripe for satire and commentary when done well. Not just in the obvious nods toward questions such as when is art not art or the culture at the play, but how does one prescribe monetary value to something that can be so specifically engineered in the abstract to convey different relevance to different people?
Dan Gilroy’s Velvet Buzzsaw is something that strives to tackle these themes in a genre-mashing and more outwardly fevered and colourful take on the Los Angles that he explored back in Nightcrawler. But unlike that film, which fed its themes and content regarding the medias fascination with the macabre and grotesque in the city’s underbelly back into its intense character study, this doesn’t work as satisfyingly as either a performance showcase or a prodding of the scabs of elite society – and as far as the satire is concerned basically a joke compared to the more recent and successful The Square.
The concept sounds different enough on paper; after a series of paintings by an unknown artist are discovered, a supernatural force enacts revenge on those who have allowed their greed to get in the way of art. But instead of maybe parsing this out in a sharper manner, Gilroy turns up the volume to such an excessive and messy degree that it smothers any genuine depth through the ludicrous presentation and genre shift that doesn’t land.
On the plus side, the technical attributes of the film at least look surface level glamorous and clear-cut. Robert Elswit’s cinematography looks great and it features an assertive score by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders. But like so much of the vein detachment that Jake Gyllenhaal’s disenchanted and preposterously named art critic Morf Vandewalt and others exhibit, but there’s no actual substantive meat to chew.
Its only as the film trundles into its second with a conspicuous lack of pace that it becomes clear that Gilroy doesn’t actually have a singular point that he’s even trying to stretch. Taking a turn into horror that only falls under such categorisation due to the bloody violence involved and not any of the visceral or existential dread that might come of its narcissistic characters biting the dust in varying ironic ways – some with a punchline, others without.
It’s honestly jarring just how little of an effect the film ends up leaving, as it descends from what initially appears to be an upper scale Final Destination film into a sanitised and even less interesting Giallo film. Where the contrast of the artwork being a literal stage for the violence to spill out on makes conceptual sense, but has no real bite or energy to it carry it over the hurdle of execution. It’s also never really explained why the paintings are supposed to be affecting people other than that they just are and that’s what we need to get the plot into motion
None of this is helped by the all-star cast mugging it as much as they can with their one-dimensional characters, desperately trying to elevate the satire into something more meaningful by just playing it loud and caricatured. Tom Sturridge, Daveed Diggs, Toni Collette and John Malkovich (picking up Netflix green, again) making barely any impression even given some initial promise, although Rene Russo probably comes off best as gallery owner Rhodora Haze.
Zawe Ashton’s agent Josephina is might be kind of despicable, but Ashton doesn’t mine any greater depths from her beyond hysteria. Same goes, sadly, for Gyllenhaal’s art critic as a punching bag stand-in, who might have been more compelling were his relationships further explored, or if we were allowed more time to venture into his headspace instead of just having him as a POV for the audience at points. It’s another example of how not to use an actor like Gyllenhaal by allowing him to just fill in the blank spaces with foppish shouting.
The future for Netflix productions does not look bright at this point, this being their second release this year constructed in such a way to develop a rampant social media storm of memes and GIFs over anything ampler or even coherent.
Velvet Buzzsaw is an empty void, as empty and sparse as the blank exhibiting spaces of its settings spruced up by splashes of colour, and enough rattling of varied half measured ideas to try and convince that it’s got more on its mind than the edit or story would allow.