Review: In ‘Velvet Buzzsaw,’ a painting is worth a thousand gallons of blood

In “Velvet Buzzsaw” – Dan Gilroy’s third film in five years after “Nightcrawler” and “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” – art is a destination for curious eyes, eager wallets and ostensibly deep critique.

It’s also, eventually, a channel for horror, bloodshed and shlock. The contrast isn’t accidental, and the transition happens nearly as fast as it took you to get to this paragraph from the one above.

The general absence of subtlety in Gilroy’s film, a contemporary art-market satire drunk with a few drops of cinematic absinthe, makes parts of “Nightcrawler” feel like a PBS documentary. For better or worse, hyperbole is a way of the world in “Velvet Buzzsaw,” and even more so as it reaches the realm of violence. “I think sober hasn’t been good for him,” Jake Gyllenhaal’s faux-elitist art critic utters at one point. “Velvet Buzzsaw” doesn’t think so either.

After a tantalizingly animated opening credits sequence we’re dropped into a world where Gyllenhaal’s Mort Vandewalt is but a taste of the film’s personalities, ones that treats perfectionism and superficiality as one in the same. It’s clear from the start that Mort fulfills a niche role in this barb-wired society, one that relies on the likes of Rene Russo’s self-centered art gallery owner, Rhodora, and Toni Collette’s manic exhibit curator, Gretchen – both equally self-obsessed – for any validation. Without it, you get the sense they’d suffocate.

The clash between appreciating art for creativity’s sake and appreciating art solely as an avenue for commerce is one waged endlessly in the world of “Velvet Buzzsaw,” and seeing how it affects those on-screen early on is deeply absorbing and entertaining. Art is merely artillery in this war of rivals constantly one-upping each other; prada outfits are the dress blues.

Like 2014’s “Nightcrawler,” character ambitions and motivations aren’t muted in “Velvet Buzzsaw.” Gilroy does an excellent job setting up Mort, Rhodora and their cohorts as despicable but also clearly several degrees removed from reality, the kind of egos that don’t have the patience to manually correct simple word-to-text mistakes on their iPhones. (Natalie Dyer of “Stranger Things” fame is also here in a much more sane capacity to establish that not the entire world shares their sense of artifice.)

So when “Velvet Buzzsaw” decides to swallow this story up in the supernatural, it becomes clear Gilroy intends to get his messages across in more ways than one, and in ways much more campy than we’ve observed so far. Josephina, an assistant of Rhodora’s who can’t catch a break, enters the apartment of a neighbor who has mysteriously died, and finds rooms crammed with art that immediately speaks to her.

It speaks to Mort as well. Josephina shows him some of the works and he spews the kinds of obscure adjectives that we assume to be complimentary but also potentially made up on the spot (we wouldn’t put it past Mort, who represents another maniacally Out There caricature by Gyllenhaal that probably need medical help). The obsessions spreads and the hundreds of abandoned pieces – much more brooding in aesthetic nature than the pop-art we’ve seen so far – are eventually in demand and on the walls of Rhodora’s gallery.

Then things take a turn for the bloody, and “Velvet Buzzsaw” channels its inner “Final Destination,” offing our characters in goofy ways that’s more the stuff of laughs than nightmares. How they do so doesn’t necessarily add much, and if you know early on what’s coming it’s impossible to be tricked by one particular piece of art that’s practically begging to be an instrument of terror.

What we previously observed a world where art doesn’t have the ability to fight back against its cheapening all of a sudden becomes a harbinger of bloody doom, but it doesn’t necessarily make for a better or more intriguing film. The shift from satire to faux-thriller is a rapid and bloody one, and one that frequently threatens to diminish its themes, even if it never buries them entirely.

The movie’s metamorphosis also shines light on the flaws in Gilroy’s script. “Velvet Buzzsaw” goes from gliding along on deliciously preeny dialogue to feeling choppy and disjointed.  Scenes are seemingly cut away from too soon and some characters getting short thrift.

Case in point: I think I’ve forgotten up until this point that John Malkovich was in this movie, and I’m not sure if he needed to be given where the narrative ends up.

The dynamics of “Velvet Buzzsaw’s” pre-Revenge of the Acrylic first act, by comparison a much more subdued bit of moviemaking, even as it revels in the overblown, are home to some of the film’s more interesting moments. The cogs of a gilded Los Angeles art gallery community churning on the strength of overpriced venti mochas have the potential to power some enticing ruminations, and they will for most (even if its ideas of critics’ agendas are dubious at best).

It’s simply hard to imagine Gilroy’s vision not being a more effective one had he resisted from leaning into horror, especially seeing how he achieved success with a more cerebral, penetrating kind of fright in “Nightcrawler.”

We’re never asking for compromise in the first 20 or so minutes of “Velvet Buzzsaw;” but Gilroy insists on it anyway. The knife’s edge that Act I dances on isn’t shattered so much as it is dulled, but it would be to the film’s benefit for the bloodshed to actually mean something.

Still, despite the script’s shaky legs and the film’s only middling confidence that it knows what it’s trying to say about the value of art in an increasingly artificial age, there’s something devilish and ultimately satisfying that lingers while watching “Velvet Buzzsaw,” something more cosmic than the sense of morbidity Gilroy implies awaits those of us who to put a value on art (in which case we are all doomed).

In all honesty, what Gilroy has created could actually be a masterful example of ultimate synthesis between form and function. Time might tell, but for now I just can’t shake the idea “Velvet Buzzsaw” would be much more memorable if the form it ended up taking wasn’t the shape of Eli Roth’s silhouette.

 

“Velvet Buzzsaw” is rated R for violence, language, some sexuality/nudity and brief drug use

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Zawe Ashton, Tom Sturridge

Directed by Dan Gilroy

2019

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