Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)
Directed By: Dan Gilroy
Written By: Dan Gilroy
Morf: You make me confused.
Josephina: Tough headspace for a critic.
This exchange takes place about 10 minutes into Dan Gilroy’s Velvet Buzzsaw and it sets the tone for the rest of what you are about to see. It’s not that the plot is hard to follow or that the characters make ridiculous choices that I found confusing. It’s the two stories that seem to be happening at the same time. One is a brilliant take down of the art world and the other is a paranormal horror film. Neither is bad, they just don’t fit together.
Gilroy took down the media in 2014’s brilliant Nightcrawler. This time around he sets his sights on the intersection of art and commerce and no one is spared. The people who monetize art are portrayed as money hungry savages, critics are shown to be full of self importance and artists are mostly above it all. This is one of the big problems with the movie though, there is no one to like. In the entire world created by Gilroy there is exactly one character worth caring about and she gets virtually no story. It’s something that countless horror movies have gotten wrong in the past, it’s not nearly as effective if I don’t care if these people live or die.
This side of the movie mostly works though. The satire is biting and quite humorous. The movie business is not depicted in this film but there is no doubt that is what Gilroy is taking a shot at, instead he uses the world of fine art as it’s stand in and he does it extremely well. Even the names are outrageous. Here are some of the characters in Velvet Buzzsaw: Morf Vanderwalt, Rhodora Haze and Jon Dondon. When the movie first started and these characters were introduced I thought it was lazy writing. Not only are their names outlandish but they are over the top stereotypes of people in the world of high art. As the story unfolds though, I started to realize that this was the point and it was actually achieving exactly what Gilroy was going for. If the film had just focused on this side of things, it would have been an all out success. It doesn’t though.
It also tries to fit in a horror movie angle that never really works. Early in the film, Josephina (who works for an art gallery) finds one of her neighbors dead in the hallway. Later she learns that he has left instructions for the contents inside his apartment be destroyed. Before they can be she goes into his apartment and discovers that he was an artist and his work is astonishing. This propels her to the top of the art world. Problems arise when the people who try to profit from the art start dying. They don’t die in any sort realistic way though, they die in these strange supernatural ways that come straight out of A Nightmare On Elm Street. These scenes took me out of the movie because they feel entirely out of place. To make matters worse, they are never explained. We’re never given a reason for the murders. We don’t know who or what is causing them. It’s complete nonsense and really hurts the film.
It’s highly unlikely that we will see a better cast than the one assembled for this movie and you don’t need me to tell you that they are great. I’ll just list some of the names and leave it to you to be impressed: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Collette, John Malkovich and Daveed Diggs.
Dan Gilroy’s ability to mix social commentary and satire is second to none. He is clearly a filmmaker with something to say. Velvet Buzzsaw only falls short of being great because he didn’t seem quite sure how to say it.