Film Review – Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)
Seconds after finishing the trailer, I contacted the MovieBabble crew and requested to review Velvet Buzzsaw. It looked absolutely demented, and therefore perfect for the likes of me. It sold itself as a supernatural slasher set in the art world, featuring an all-star cast led by Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo and authored by the talented Dan Gilroy. It was impossible not to be excited. Regardless of whether it was going to be any good, it was certainly going to be memorable…
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: Dan Gilroy
Written By: Dan Gilroy
Set in the art world of Los Angeles, Josephina (Zawe Ashton), a downtrodden assistant to business savy gallery owner Rhodora (Rene Russo), comes across a series of beautiful paintings which were previously owned by her recently deceased neighbor Vetril Dease (Alan Mandell). Even though Dease’s dying wish was for his art to be destroyed, Josephina sees financial potential in these works of art and bands together with Rhodora to market these paintings to the vacuous upper class.
The presence of Dease’s art work begins to effect a slew of colorful characters: pretentious art critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal), who begins researching the life of the artist in order to write a book; Gretchen (Toni Collette), a gossipy art curator who wants to profit from the buzz surrounding Dease’s art work and begins promoting it to several art venues; Piers (John Malkovich), an abstract artist whose work has begun to suffer in quality when he exchanged his alcoholism for sobriety; Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge), a competitive gallery owner; Damrish (Daveed Digs), an up-and-coming street-graffiti artist who struggles between his loyalty to the artform and pursuing fame; Bryson (Billy Magnussen), a wannabe artist and employee of Rhodora; and Coco (Natalia Dyer), a young and kindly secretary to Rhodora.
But strange things start to happen to some of these characters. People either disappear or bodies start piling up. As Morf ventures into the history of Dease, he discovers a disturbing history of abuse and homicide. It soon becomes apparent that anyone who profits from Dease’s artwork will eventually suffer a horrific fate…
Immaculate Performances and Unlikeable Characters
If I had to describe Jake Gyllenhaal as an actor in one word, “reliable” would be the perfect fit. Ever since playing awkward teenager Donnie Darko, we have seen his impressive turn towards stardom and thespian greatness. There’s no denying his range. He has proven himself as a leading man in both blockbusters and indie fare. As both a serious and comedic actor. Even as an action hero! Hey, does anyone remember Prince of Persia: Sands of Time? Anyone?
Arguably his greatest performance in his already illustrious career is playing the ambitious sociopath Louis Bloom in Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut, Nightcrawler. Even though I personally considered the film slightly overrated — mostly because I guessed the entire final act of the film in the first hour which killed a lot of suspense — Gyllenhaal was incredible. It’s certainly one of the greatest performances I have seen in the recent decade. It’s the perfect representation of a sociopath. True, I absolutely hated Louis Bloom in the film, but that’s only to Gyllenhaal’s credit.
Gyllenhaal is phenomenal in Velvet Buzzsaw too, playing a pretentious art critic with the ridiculous name. It’s an entirely different character than what we saw in Nightcrawler. He’s a character right out of a Brett Easton Ellis novel: a superficial elitist who thinks he’s deep, who uses his elaborate dictionary to sound meaningful but he’s actually not saying anything at all. He manages to strengthen his illusions of importance by living in the correct echo-chamber, so much so that he could have easily been a character in American Psycho.
Rene Russo, a co-star in Nightcrawler, actually plays the more interesting character this time as Rhodora, the gallery owner. While her character was submissive to Gyllenhaal’s character in Nightcrawler, even being manipulated into a romantic relationship, she’s the dominant one here. Even if she seems reliant on people, she’s actually pulling the strings. She’s a career woman whose comfortable in her vices, who knows how to play the game.
Her character is also the most interesting. She’s a former punk rocker from her band Velvet Buzzsaw, who gave up fighting against the man in order to sell her soul for a more comfortable lifestyle. She becomes the capitalistic ghoul which Louis Bloom represented in Nightcrawler, a woman who uses the most sacred of human expressions — art — and exploits it for commercial gain, rendering it meaningless in the process.
Besides Russo and Gyllenhaal, only John Malkovich and Daveed Diggs are noteworthy. It’s not that the rest of the group is bad in any way, it’s just that most of them are horribly unlikable. Daveed Diggs as graffiti artist Damrish is interesting, even if his character doesn’t do much. He’s likable because he’s an artist who really believes in his work, in how it could help his community. His innocence is under threat by Rhodora, who gives him a sort of Faustian bargain.
Malkovich plays the cynical artist Piers, whose recent sobriety has deprived him of inspiration. In a way, he’s the person Damrish could end up being if he signs Rhodora’s contract. He’s a sell-out artist who probably fed his illusion of grandeur through alcohol. But since that’s now gone, he must face the fact that he’s become a hack. As usual, Malkovich plays the cynical bastard with perfection but he offers depth in one particular sequence where for one brief moment, without even uttering a word, he bears his sorrows within.
Fails Spectacularly as a Horror Film
If you’re a horror buff and hoping to get your kicks from this film after seeing the trailer, be aware: the film is satire first, horror second. Considering the pulpy elements of the plot, the film is frustratingly tame on the horror elements. The insanity promised on the trailer is there, but that’s all you get.
As a satirical condemnation of the art world, the film works wonderfully. As a horror film, the film falls annoyingly short. There’s a few brief flashes of visceral gore but nothing too shocking. There’s some build-up before the spooky stuff happens, but most of these scenes end rather anti-climatically. Often the scene seems to end just when it becomes interesting.
The presentation of the supernatural occurrences also lack excitement. The CGI used to bring them to the screen looks bland. It doesn’t look fake enough to make you laugh nor does it look realistic enough to impress.
This is my main problem with this film: it doesn’t push the absurd elements far enough. It’s obvious that Gilroy has done some extensive research into the art world as the film is brimming with authenticity and biting satire when it comes to exposing the vacuousness and money-grubbing nature of the art world. But it doesn’t really mesh coherently with wacky horror elements.
Gilroy seems hesitant in going full horror and tread into Sam Raimi territory, who can blend comedy and horror perfectly. It seems to struggle between grounded character portrayal and absurd horror. Perhaps that was the initial struggle. If the characters were closer to cartoon characters, the film could have easily veered into gory ridiculousness. They would be unlikable, but it wouldn’t matter. They are there just to be slaughtered on screen, to add to its themes of art versus commerce.
But since the characters have an air of authenticity to them, Gilroy held back, perhaps hoping that suspense would replace visceral horror. The problem with that is that you don’t care about the characters. It’s quite the contrary: you want these characters to suffer a deliciously horrific demise.
Besides a few characters, all of them are completely self-involved with no redeemable traits. The suspense is lacking because you don’t care what happens to them. There would be suspense if you are aching to see whatever shocking fate awaits them. But as stated before, since these sequences end rather anti-climatically, you aren’t as engaged as you should be.
What’s left is certainly not bad, but if had blended the horror elements with the satirical elements well, especially with such a star-studded cast, the film would have been something very special.
A Robert Altman Tribute
In describing this film to Business Insider, Gilroy mentioned how Velvet Buzzsaw would take cues from Robert Altman’s masterful Hollywood satire The Player.
From that perspective, the film takes a few cues from Altman’s aesthetic sensibilities. Besides the interconnected characters, it has a similar streak of cynicism which Altman’s filmography was imbued with. Like Altman, Gilroy doesn’t think much of these characters. There’s a sense of disgust permeating throughout the film, something essential for any good satire.
But stylistically, Velvet Buzzsaw feels like the opposite too. Velvet Buzzsaw, though (annoyingly) restrained, does not have that biographic feel to it, which Altman reveled in. Characters talk over each other, and everything felt natural.
Velvet Buzzsaw feels extremely scripted, which isn’t necessarily to its detriment. The supernatural element practically makes it a given. The film doesn’t have to be a Robert Altman joint, it’s a film by Dan Gilroy after all. Even so, since it does have general disgust of humanity that made Altman’s work so enjoyable. It does sort of work as a decent tribute to a great filmmaker, even if it doesn’t come near the same quality.
Velvet Buzzsaw raises interesting questions about the nature of art: is art more special when it’s commercialized or would it lose its value? What’s the true motive of an artist: is it to be perceived as an artist or is it about sharing a genuine sentiment of the human condition?
Velvet Buzzsaw also works as a sharp satire of the art world, and how the value of art is manipulated to wealthy elites in order to accumulate excessive profit.
It’s a shame then that its supernatural horror elements don’t work as well, making Velvet Buzzsaw ultimately a little unsatisfying as a whole. So if you’re hoping to see a crazy horror film, especially the one promised in the trailer, you will be disappointed.
Even so, it’s an original film filled with great performances and something to say. It’s still worth checking out. We need more films like this. It’s not perfect, but art rarely is.
Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on Velvet Buzzsaw? Comment down below!
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