The art world is a curious and often incomprehensible ecosystem of high-low stakes and financial black holes built from nothing but smoke and mirrors. It’s a market whose ever-shaky foundations can rise and fall with a sniff, and one where tastes are as much driven by an eagerness to be near celebrity as any part of Hollywood. Given its proximity to the elite, the eye-watering amount of money changing hands at any given time, and the ensemble of parodic creatures who populate it, it’s somewhat surprising that nobody has tried to use the art world as a playground for a slasher frenzy before. It’s not hard to see why Nightcrawler Dan Gilroy would be so taken by that premise: Imagine if Freddy Krueger came to you through art and not your dreams.
Velvet Buzzsaw sort of knows what it wants to be, but what it wants to be seems designed to fail on some level. It’s a concept that demands inconsistency and satire as clunky as much of the art that lines the gallery walls in this film. The self-serving pretentious stalwarts of the Los Angeles art world enter a back-stabbing frenzy over the rights to the work of a newly discovered outsider artist who died and left behind hundreds of paintings that seem to hypnotize everyone who comes their way. Critic Morf Valdewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal at his peacocking finest), the kind of writer with the power to make or break careers with his reviews, is looking for someone new to crown as king of the art world. His acquaintance, artistic agent Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), is on a similar hunt after losing her most famous client as he’s sobered up and found himself unable to paint. Her beleaguered assistant Josephina (Zawe Ashton) wants to break free from grunt work, and she may have found it thanks to the death of her upstairs neighbour, a recluse who has left behind a treasure trove of paintings. Despite explicit instructions that all his work be destroyed after his death, Josephina knows a good offer when she sees one, and soon the entire art world is clamouring for access to the work of the now-legendary Vetril Dease. Who cares if a few lies have to be told and a little bit of blood shed on the gallery floors?
For its first half, Velvet Buzzsaw hits all its marks in exposing this strange little world for all its hollowness and hypocrisies. Art isn’t art, it’s merely another commodity to force rich people to bid over until the winner writes enough zeroes on their cheque. Nobody seems to have any real opinions on any of the paintings or sculptures or installments that they’re all desperate to buy. Tastes are driven by what everyone else is thinking, but nobody really seems to be doing any real thinking. It’s not a ground-breaking insight into the modern art market - check out novels like Randall by Jonathan Gibbs or The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild for other examples - but it’s certainly one ripe for black comedy and strangeness. Oddly, all the most interesting aspects of that happen in the first half of the film before the horror elements kick in.
The horror is finely executed and visually striking, as is befitting an art world film. The colour palate is refreshingly vibrant, akin to pop art in places, and they wear their influences proudly on their over-priced sleeves: There’s a death scene that echoes a famous Jeff Koons piece, and plenty of Goya moments for keen eyes to feast upon. The unwitting victims become one with the art, its own delightfully unsubtle message about how humanity consumes culture. As fun as this stuff is to watch, and just funny enough, one couldn’t help but wonder what it was all for in the end. The body count increases but it doesn’t feel particularly attached to the rest of the story being told, nor does it resolve itself in a way that gives satisfaction beyond the superficial appeal of death by art.
It’s all incredibly good fun and I can’t fault Gilroy for committing to a genuinely interesting concept I’ve never seen before on-screen. Still, it’s a shame to see someone who has done such subversive work fall into the pitfalls of the horror genre in ways that seem somewhat lazy and to the detriment of the larger story. I almost wish Gilroy had gotten rid of the supernatural revenge murder stuff and focused more on the art world satire. There’s a great story to be told about a feeding frenzy that occurs when someone discovers a treasure trove of amazing art then has to deal with the fallout when everyone finds out said genius artist was a murderer. Perhaps this more streamlined approach would have given breathing room to some of the less developed subplots, such as John Malkovich’s struggle with artistic block or Toni Collette giving up on museum life to chase the big money.
Of course, when you populate your film with an ensemble this impressive, they’ll still find the layers and textures to their characters that may be absent from the page. Gyllenhaal is clearly having a ball as a neurotic art critic dealing with a crisis of sexuality alongside his growing paranoia about the Dease collection. Of course, this being a major movie, the critic character is a narcissistic hack devoid of his own talent who only wants fame and the glory of defining taste, so my profession is still looking for a pop culture depiction that is vaguely human. Rene Russo as Rhodora, the former punk rocker turned ruthlessly efficient agent, glamorously stomps through rooms and over guileful wannabe competitors, relishing the opportunity to play someone so driven and unashamed of her poisonous approach. Fans of Fresh Meat will be delighted to see Zawe Ashton, playing the naive assistant who quickly gains a taste for the good life through her own treachery.
Velvet Buzzsaw is enjoyable for what it is but it needed to go way bigger: More caricatures, more blood, more wigs. If you want to own the silliness of this concept, you need to go hard or go home. It’s a shame Gilroy wanted to have his cake and eat it, even if the results are certainly worth at least one viewing, because you can see how this concept could have been so much more than what we got. But then again, I’m a critic, and if there is one thing Velvet Buzzsaw wants us to know, it’s that taste is subjective and any attempt to change that can get very messy.
Velvet Buzzsaw is now available to watch on Netflix.