Written by Andrew Busch // Edited by Joe Ahart // Images courtesy of Netflix and the Verge
Dan Gilroy’s Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) is a playful horror-satire that targets the world of contemporary art’s self-absorbed social elite to deliver a clear message about the distinction between art as a commercial commodity and art as genuine self-expression. The film follows a group of high-rolling influencers and gallery owners in Miami Beach during Art Basel, the antithesis of Gilroy’s previous film Nightcrawler (2014), which featured con men and crime journalism. But thematically, the two films are closer than they appear. Just like Louis Bloom of Nightcrawler, a majority of the film’s characters are motivated by their individual greed and desire for further influence in the industry. In its most successful moments, Velvet Buzzsaw is a film that carves out a unique narrative within the horror genre with engaging performances from a seasoned cast. However, when all is said and done, the film ultimately suffers due to the absence of genuine horror as well as its heavy-handed critique of capitalism.
Velvet Buzzsaw’s biggest appeal, and arguably most enjoyable elements, are the performances from its star-studded cast of characters. The two leads of this enormous cast, Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo, are incredibly memorable and are able to bring complexity to characters that it would be easy to feel unsympathetic towards. Gyllenhaal stars as the eccentric Morf Vandewalt, an influential art critic that evaluates the aesthetic appearance of everything with cutting cynicism. Once again, Gyllenhaal is at the top of his game as he subtly transitions throughout his performance from confident and collected to neurotic and explosive by the film’s end. Russo co-stars as a seasoned gallery owner, Rhodora Haze, with a cold demeanor that is befitting of her place at the top of the art world’s food-chain as she uses new artists for her personal gain. Russo’s performance expertly sells Rhodora’s ruthless nature while also delivering some subtle hints of the character’s vulnerability despite her calloused attitude.
The film also boasts some incredible supporting characters, each one adding to the discourse of the film’s commentary on art and capitalism. Josephina (Zawe Ashton), Coco (Natalia Dyer), Piers (John Malkovich), Damrish (Daveed Diggs) and Gretchen (Toni Collette) each have different relationships with art. For example, Piers (John Malkovich), is a famous artist on the decline who struggles with both his alcoholism and his own search for meaning in his art. On the other hand, Josephina (Zawe Ashton) is an employee of Rhodora that is clearly more drawn to wealth and fame than any level of artistic expression. As a result, Gilroy’s biggest accomplishment in Velvet Buzzsaw is the level of detailed characters that he is able to achieve, not only keeping the narrative interesting but also adding to the overarching conversation occurring throughout the film about art’s relationship with capitalism.
However, despite the fact that Velvet Buzzsaw successfully captures a multitude of perspectives, the film gets bogged down in its repetitive and heavy-handed critique. While there is nothing wrong with the message that it presents, by the time that film reaches its conclusion the same message has been delivered dozens of times. Viewers are left with a singular, clear-cut message about the stark divide between those driven by greed who profit from art versus the individual artist who creates art for the sake of self-expression. Consequently, instead of being presented with a complex discussion, the film’s potentially unique perspectives feel underutilized. The message is simply too cut-and-dry as each scene repeats the critique that art is a victim of commoditization, while straying from any ambiguity surrounding this issue.
But, the most egregious problem with Velvet Buzzsaw is the absence of horror from this horror-satire. I would even go so far as to say that it is uncertain whether Velvet Buzzsaw can actually be labeled a horror film at all. It has a couple of gory scenes sprinkled throughout, but up until the last fifteen minutes the overall tone is mostly satirical. The main culprit behind this misstep is that unlike the level of detail given to each of the characters, the horror story at the core of the narrative is underdeveloped and unfocused. Even though a collection of haunted paintings is certainly a unique idea, they don’t quite amount to an interesting antagonist. It might sound obvious, but the main problem is that paintings cannot move. This removes a huge amount of tension from the film as the outcome becomes pretty predictable when one of these paintings is present on screen.
Aside from the obvious practical challenge that haunted paintings present, the root of this issue is the fact that the antagonistic force is actually hundreds of artistic works. Frankly, this threat is so nebulous that it overcomplicates the film and it becomes a challenge to identify what to be afraid of. Part of this flaw might have stemmed from Gilroy’s focus on the film’s ensemble cast. In an interview with Sean Fennessey of the podcast The Big Picture, Gilroy offers a quick look into the thought process involved in shaping the film’s horror component: “When Robert Elswit, our cinematographer [and I] sat down, we watched Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist because we came up with the idea that we wanted to create a believable world with believable characters that are experiencing unbelievable events. We were trying to make it credible and we felt that those were two template films”. Gilroy clearly identifies that his objective was to establish a real world with genuine characters in Velvet Buzzsaw, which he experly achieves. But, he neglects that his horror equation is missing a concrete threat to its characters like the cultist neighbors or the demon of his two template films. Consequently, it feels like Gilroy might have been jugging a few too many elements when creating Velvet Buzzsaw. While the effort he makes to add depth to his characters is intensely satisfying, the horror that drives the plot is tragically lost in the mix.
Even though both subtle critique or horror might not be Velvet Buzzsaw’s forte, its originality and detailed character work are commendable in a genre that is infested with remakes. In his same interview with Fennessey, Gilroy touches on his search for originality as he states: “I am always looking for things that haven’t been done or [I am] trying to. I sort of see myself… I see all writers and artist as prospectors. You are wandering around the desert kicking rocks trying to see things. And it just feels like I try to find worlds that I have not seen fully examined in a movie before” (The Big Picture Podcast). With Pet Semetary, It: Chapter 2 and now Child’s Play set to release in the coming months, Gilroy responds to the current boom of Hollywood reboots by creating a fresh amalgamation that is part Art Basel and part gore fest. The balance of these elements is far from perfect, but regardless Velvet Buzzsaw is a film worth watching because it refuses to play it safe. It throws out the playbook on horror then sets it on fire to deliver a unique, intensely enjoyable satire about the dangers of greed.
Velvet Buzzsaw is out now on Netflix.