Dan Gilroy and Jake Gyllenhaal team up once more to explore the cynicism of human nature and the potential destruction upon decency that can be unleashed in the path of unchecked ambitions and the more toxic side of artistic passion, this time via the excessive decadence and hypocrisy of the world of high art.
The discovery of a tormented, recently deceased man’s powerful and haunting paintings presents a circle of friends composed of an influential critic, a talent agent, a gallery owner, and a curator with an opportunity to be at the forefront of a massive breakthrough in the high art community, only to find each of them and their associates picked off one by one via increasingly grisly circumstances before realizing that the art they intend to package and sell against the posthumous wishes of its tragic creator may be orchestrating their fates.
Aforementioned comparisons to Gilroy’s previous work, the staggeringly bleak yet stupendously underappreciated “Nightcrawler” are fairly well founded; both movies are about the pursuit of entrepreneurial industries built on the back of artistic craftsmanship, the pieces of humanity we need to sacrifice to excel in said industries, and most hauntingly, presenting an indictment of the society that openly condemns such sacrifice yet perpetuates the operation of institutions that reward them with success.
Where that film focused its narrative lens on the character study of a clear sociopath however, “Velvet Buzzsaw” uniquely attempts to grapple the multilayered superficiality of industries and critical review surrounding art in the form of a high concept B-movie. That clash of high minded subject matter and its chokehold on expressions of raw and unfiltered emotion with the unapologetic set up and execution of a direct-to-video schlock horror flick of the 80s is bound to rub many an audience the wrong way. On its surface, the movie’s kills are a bit spread out, and it doesn’t quite slam the culture it’s studying hard enough to make said deaths instill the guttural sense of karmic satisfaction it occasionally seems to be going for.
“Velvet Buzzsaw” is undoubtedly going to either be very polarizing or land in the service of a fairly niche audience, and while I can’t blame those bound to be turned off by its lack of offering primal horror movie satisfaction, I can say why it very much worked for me. That reasoning coming primarily down to its indictment of art connoisseurs and the culture of elitism perpetuated by their passions, regardless of their intentions.
The film makes itself very clear on its view of the purity of art and the damage being done to the voices that can nurture it by the financial exploitation of an upper class so concerned with perpetuating an image that they can’t even be honest with themselves.
Its hypocrisy oozes out of every frame of the film, from the curator’s shameless efforts to package reluctant artists, to the gallery owner’s seedy underhanded dealings that contradict her own modus operandi, and most prominently within the critic, so obsessed with the way he is to be perceived by the world and the lies he has to commit to in order to maintain that perception that he begins to lose the ability to actually critique while raising the question of how much of these haunted paintings are actually manifestations of his own budding psychosis.
Gilroy holds the rocky-but-bold production together with a striking visual palette that makes brilliant use of the limited space that he had access to and a killer ensemble of terrific performances. Toni Collette, Daveed Diggs, Rene Russo and several others manage to perform superbly, straddling the line between caricature and boisterous personalities in line with the aspects of high art culture they’re all meant to represent in a way that delivers the symbolism without devolving them into being onscreen cartoon characters.
The real killer performance however belongs to Gyllenhaal as Morf, the art critic, who manages to pass in and out of several different personas informed by a budding sense of self awareness regarding his own pretentiousness and the parasitic relationship he shares with the culture he surrounds himself in perpetuating his own sense of self loathing almost flawlessly.
I suspect that the audience for “Velvet Buzzsaw,” one more fascinated by art’s relationship between those partaking in industrializing it and the effects of their flagrant disregard for its patrons below their class, will be a much smaller market than the horror buffs the marketing was aiming to target. For those few, like myself, that can enjoy schlocky genre faire with a moderately uneven yet unique study of the damage that can be caused by losing yourself to passion, the film is a unique little treat.
4 out of 5
Graduating from Texas A&M University—Commerce with a bachelor's degree in News and Editorial Journalism, Jordan Wright has lived most of his adult life professionally critiquing films, from major blockbusters to indie dramas, and has no intentions of stopping.