It seems ironic to review a film whose entire theme questions the subjectivity of art and the role a critic plays in the massive machine of commercializing the creative. The film industry mirrors that of the art industry, and perhaps Dan Gilroy’s latest genre-bender, Velvet Buzzsaw, is commenting on the merit system we’re all casually partaking in at this very moment. This review is part of that beast, quantifying someones moving masterpiece, their camera-captured brushstrokes, into a “should you see it?” or “should you not?”. My, isn’t that scary.
In the world of Velvet Buzzsaw, the movers and shakers twirl like a well-oiled, masterpiece churning and burning machine. We are introduced to each of them in quick succession during a busy Gallery showcase- so quick, we almost expect the film to take an Agatha Christie detour down Murder Mystery lane. Doors locked. Person dead. Whodunnit? But nope, just a casting call. Top L.A critic Morf (Jake Gyllenhaal) is at the center of it all, creating the buzz or killing entire careers with his “Enter” key. Gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo) is an expert at manipulation, and spends more time buying and selling the people in her company than the art on her walls. There’s the pushy-under-the-veil-of-charm Gretchen (Toni Collette), who’s a curator for the museum turned private art buyer, artist without a muse Piers (John Malkovich), up-and-coming street artist Damrish (Daveed Diggs), and assistant to watch Josephina (Zawe Ashton), who won’t be fetching coffees for long.
A world hungry for authenticity and emotion captured by brushstrokes lands the collection of a century when Josephina stumbles across the corpse of a reclusive man in her building. Learning he was an artist with no family, relatives, and his life’s work heading straight for the dumpster, she takes a peak into his apartment and instantly becomes enamored with the collection, snatching it all up for herself. It isn’t long before she’s shaking hands with Rhodora, and the paintings of a mysterious Vetril Dease are primed to become an overnight sensation. Hands are shaken, deals are struck, and soon the well oiled machine has slid Dease into its commercial folds – Morf securing book rights, Gretchen securing two paintings for a private collector, and Jospephina + Rhodora seeing green.
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But the paintings aren’t about to go silently. As Morf investigates more about the dark past of Vetril Dease, the very artworks themselves begin to fight back. Hallucinations, apparitions, and murder most foul. But it isn’t a whodunnit, art doesn’t need to play coy. Soon every character that played a part in the commercialization of Dease’s work find themselves on the supernatural hit list.
“..But it isn’t a whodunnit, art doesn’t need to play coy. Soon every character that played a part in the commercialization of Dease’s work find themselves on the supernatural hit list. “
In perhaps the biggest surprise of Velvet Buzzsaw, the art isn’t the star here. Neither, the horror. We get glimpses of Dease’s work thoughout the film, but most look like impressionist paintings rather than anything truly morbid or haunting. We trust the gaze of the cultured critics as they become instantly infatuated, and are ‘suaded by their confidence. In what we thought was a horror film about paintings coming to life and seeking revenge, our lens is instead pointed on big business and the wheelings and dealings of money-hungry narcissists. I understand a film’s want to have commentary, but when you are using the extreme genre of horror to blanket your allegory, whatever that may be, the horror of it all needs to be front and center. “Give me art or give me death!” – me.
That isn’t to say that Velvet Buzzsaw is tame by any means. There is violence, murder, and a whole host of demonic painting tomfoolery – but is in such stark contrast the white, clean, commercial art world that the horror segments almost feel like parody. Apart from an eerie Robot named ‘Hoboman‘, and an illusive sphere that seems to have apparated (a word invented by J.K Rowling, but I’m using it) from The Black Lodge, there isn’t anything wholly original about any of the murderous manifestations. Horror feels stitched into this film. Plucked and borrowed from films that came before it, twirled in wet paint, and utilized without concrete rhyme or reason. And what makes art good – is authenticity. Vitrol Dease may have it, but the horrors of his work sure don’t.
Velvet Buzzsaw is the supernatural slasher it set out to be, swapping out unlikeable teens for unlikable art affluents, a cabin in the woods for a well-lit, stark white gallery. But it isn’t as cathartic, satiating, or as authentic as it needed to be to succeed in trumping Devil’s Candy as a terrifying exploration of art gone bad.
Velvet Buzzsaw celebrated it’s World Premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and will land on Netflix February 1st.