Dan Gilroy made a huge splash when his directorial debut, Nightcrawler, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival to rave reviews. After a sophomore slump in Roman J. Israel, Esq., Gilroy is back with a vengeance by going full horror with Velvet Buzzsaw, a bonkers supernatural slasher disguised as an art film where instead of horny teens, it’s pretentious and greedy art snobs getting murdered.
Gilroy returns to the morally compromised Los Angeles, only instead of dark and gloomy city streets, Velvet Buzzsaw is a gleaming and colorful satire of the art world. We begin at an art show where we are introduced to a parade of zany and ridiculous characters that are completely unaware of their ridiculousness. Jake Gyllenhaal reunites with Gilroy to play Morf Vandewalt, a powerful art critic that never turns off his criticisms. Josephina (Zawe Ashton) is a receptionist with ambitions working under the commanding punk artist turned gallery owner, Rodora (Rene Russo). Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge) left Rhodora’s teaching to become her biggest rival. There’s also the art advisor with wealthy clients, Gretchen (Toni Collette). Rounding up the main cast is John Malkovich as a once great artist whose newfound sobriety ruined his artistic vision, and the one good-hearted and normal member of the ensemble, Coco (Natalia Dyer), a receptionist who keeps getting hired by people right before they die.
It’s a stellar cast (even Daveed Diggs and Billy Magnussen show up) filled with terrible people waiting to be slaughtered. After an old man dies in Josephina’s building, she snoops into his apartment and finds hundreds of paintings made by the dead man. As with every other character in the film, the deceased man had a ridiculous name, Ventryl Dease, and apparently, he really wanted his paintings to be destroyed once he died. Why? Well, for one they are creepy as hell. Fiery pits of hell surrounding screaming children with blacked out eyes, twisted limbs and other hellish images surround the sinister apartment. Gilroy and cinematographer Robert Elswit find beauty in the macabre, with striking city vistas and sinister interior shots, and of course, every murder looks like a work of art–there’s even a crime scene that gets mistaken for an exhibit.
There is a sense of levity and a real satirical tone to Velvet Buzzsaw, especially in the first act, which takes pleasure in showing how insane and preposterous the art world is. Each character is crazier and more terrible than the last, and as if their lives weren’t crazy enough, the various art installations seen in the movie range from creepy to outright hysterical–there’s a particularly funny installation in the form of a robot called Hoboman, who says nonsensical sentences like “I once built a railroad.” If Dan Gilroy had wanted to stop the film right there and just make it a comedy about awful people being funny, it would have worked. But then the murders happen…
After finding the creepy paintings, the ambitious would-be art agent Josephina does the logical thing and steals a few of them. When Morf declares the paintings to be masterpieces and Rhoroda expresses her desire to help sell them for a profit, more and more characters join in one way or another, getting intense acclaim and vast profits in the process by being close to the disturbing paintings. Of course, the disturbing paintings aren’t only that, as Rhodora and the greediness gang discover a sinister and possibly supernatural history tied to Dease’s art, which then start *checks notes* literally killing people.
Gilroy, who also wrote the script, takes full advantage of the over-the-top world of obnoxious art snobs and mixes it with the camp of a slasher film that results in a film with some relevant and articulate comments on the art world, told with the subtlety of a knife to the throat, all played with morbid humor that somehow works like gangbusters. The death scenes are numerous, each more absurd and gorier than the last. Killed by monkeys from a painting? Check. An exhibit where you stick your hand in a hole and suddenly your arm is cut in the bloodiest way? Check. A soundproofed room that suddenly starts torturing you with negative criticism? Sure, why not! Nothing is too preposterous or weird for Dan Gilroy, and the film is better for it.
Speaking of weird and preposterous, Jake Gyllenhaal is game for all of the film’s craziness and is fantastic at playing the snobby Morf, who can’t seem to be able to speak without criticisms. Even before having sex or at a funeral, he is commenting and critiquing his environment while constantly posing his hand under his chin, looking for new snarky lines. Meanwhile his Nightcrawler co-star Rene Russo perfectly captures the greed of doing anything for the almighty dollar, and Zawe Ashton is outstanding as Josephina, who has the widest turn from sympathetic to ruthless and greedy.
Velvet Buzzsaw may seem like a critique on greediness and our relationship to art on the surface, but what Dan Gilroy has created in nothing short of a surreal, campy and bonkers and entertaining ride through hell.
Velvet Buzzsaw is available on Netflix on February 1.
|The wacky performances.|
|Jake Gyllenhaal is unchained.|
|The balls on this film for going as crazy as it does!|
|Most bonkers deaths since the roller coaster in Final Destination.|