“All art is dangerous.”
It’s hard to classify Dan Gilroy’s latest film, the 2019 Netflix original ‘Velvet Buzzsaw‘. Is it a macabre mystery? A twisted horror? A slapstick satire? Well, yeah, it kinda of is. Yet, it’s a reasonably decent flick with a grand cast.
The story tackles the L.A. art scene and all its pretentious glory. Mashing tropes from multiple genres it builds tension mostly through an expectation for what’s coming next, rather than from genuine surprise. Which, unfortunately, wastes potential from a tremendous pool of talent.
When art dealer assistant Josephina (Zawe Ashton) discovers a trove of art nesting in a recently dead neighbor’s apartment she’s struck paydirt. The fact that this mysterious, unknown artist “Vetril Dease” had instructions for the posthumous destruction of his art is of little consequence.
And once Josephina’s hungry boss Rhodora (a biting Rene Russo) weasels into the action there’s no stopping this train. With art critic Mort Vandewalt (a scenery chewing Jake Gyllenhaal) getting pulled in and curator Gretchen (Toni Collette) wetting her lips in anticipation now everyone’s going to want to own (at whatever the price) a peace of this “limited” collection.
Of course, the art’s cursed and, of course, people end up disappearing and/or dead. That’s just a risk inherent to the cutthroat world of high society art. Dan Gilroy–already having savaged the TV news industry with ‘Nightcrawler’–intends to deconstruct the superficial, lecherous art world of wannabes and the über rich. A place where raw talent only gets you as far as what some millionaire narcissists are willing to pay for a piece of it.
‘Velvet Buzzsaw‘ isn’t quite sure what it wants to be. An uneven tone waffles between dark and farcical. And the satire is laid on thick. Yet, many of these people–most especially Rhodora–are aware of the irony of supporting art and the artist at the expense of “money only matters”. Which makes the inevitable nasty demises of these outwardly shallow characters rather more tragic than cathartic. Are we suppose to like them or despise them? Do we laugh or wince?
And, once the horror elements dig in what we get is anti-climatic and predictable excuses for the unquestionably compelling depictions of bloodshed. With perhaps only one truly memorable death amongst the carnage. Making this film as empty an artistic achievement as much of the crap being peddled to rich a-holes onscreen.
However, the performances are uniformly good. Especially Russo, Gyllenhaal, and a woefully underused John Malkovich who offers the only pure artistic voice–and he leaves the film halfway through. With Robert Elswit’s lush cinematography reminiscent of L.A. classics like ‘Chinatown’ and ‘L.A. Confidential’.
So approach ‘Velvet Buzzsaw‘ with muted expectations. Striking visuals, a strong cast, and outlandish satire only barely mask the unfocused narrative, shallow characters, and predictable, allbeit nasty, resolutions.