There were high hopes for Velvet Buzzsaw, the Netflix-streaming satirical comedy-thriller from Nightcrawler director Dan Gilroy, but not even Jake Gyllenhaal can save this promising concept from descending into mere popcorn horror. Gilroy assembles his favoured duo of Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo to deliver an impaling of the modern art-world, an exposé of an industry populated by shallow money-grabbers and pseudo-intellectual critics driving flash cars and wearing trousers that are far too high. To effectively take revenge on these detestable characters, paintings that were best left alone begin to take a turn for the supernatural and, indeed, things go very wrong very quickly.
its unoriginality leaves the viewer feeling short-changed and expectations ultimately unfulfilled
The aim here is clear – and the film succeeds in its delivery of a clear critical message – but its unoriginality leaves the viewer feeling short-changed and expectations ultimately unfulfilled. Gyllenhaal, unsurprisingly, is fantastic as the bisexual, slightly-eccentric art critic ‘Morf Vandewalt’, carrying the scene-stealing presence and unshackled individuality one comes to expect from his performances. But it’s this distinct personality that actually creates a problem for the film – none of the other characters are nearly as interesting. Rene Russo’s steely art dealer Rhodora Haze is limited to a script that makes her seem wholly one-dimensional, John Malkovich is tight-lipped (and uninteresting) as troubled artist ‘Piers’, and Zawe Ashton plays…Zawe Ashton. The result is a cast of unlikeable characters who do little to change your impression of them across a near-two-hour run time.
it’s less a masterpiece and more a confused mood board
The setting is predictably beautiful; sun-kissed boulevards, whitewashed galleries and ultra-modern living spaces befit the life of luxury one expects from wealthy art moguls. Jaguar and Mercedes make their customary appearances. It all serves to reinforce the arrogance of an industry devoid of simple interpretation and everyday accessibility. It’s nice to look at, especially when the blood starts flying and spaces manage to maintain their artistic allure – perhaps a nod to the sacrifice of one’s humanity necessary to succeed in this world. The problem is, Velvet Buzzsaw is not nearly as abstract as it clearly hopes to be. It’s less a masterpiece and more a confused mood board. What begins as an intriguing insight into a potentially-misunderstood industry quickly becomes a mediocre, run-of-the-mill horror flick that is more concerned with imaginative deaths than it is with any real depth. It may as well be an entry in the Final Destination franchise. The film hides behind its satire and doesn’t pose any meaningful questions about the motives of its characters. Nor does it offer any real alternative to the type of individual, or indeed culture, it seeks to expose.
It’s not ultimately a bad film. It’s relatively fast-paced, funny, and critical in a superficial sort-of way. But the anti-commercialist sentiment is all that’s offered as an explanation for events, and a feeling of pointlessness will likely ensue as the credits roll. Perhaps such a reaction comes as a result of Nightcrawler’s comparative brilliance. Gilroy made a rod for his own back with his 2014 sensation, so maybe his latest venture is being harshly judged by the expectation of something similar. It will definitely satisfy some, and definitely disappoint others, but Velvet Buzzsaw won’t receive the universal acclaim it thought it was destined for. Not that it matters, anyway. As Gyllenhaal’s Morf tells us, “Critique is so limiting and emotionally draining”.