When last we saw the pairing of writer/director Dan Gilroy and actor Jake Gyllenhaal, it was in 2014’s Nightcrawler, a movie that contained a superlative performance by Gyllenhaal mixed with an indictment of the “if it bleeds, it leads” culture of local TV news. They’re back together again in the Netflix film Velvet Buzzsaw, a mixed bag that nonetheless has some pointed things to say.
Set the art world of Los Angeles, the film mainly follows three people: Morf Vandewalt (Gyllenhaal), an art critic whose reviews are so respected that they can make or break careers; Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), an art gallery owner who has the power to sign almost any artist she pleases; and Josephina (Zawe Ashton), an assistant to Rhodora who stumbles upon perhaps the art find of the century.
Everyone who views the works by the previously unknown artist, including art aficionado Gretchen (Toni Collette) and respected artists like Piers (John Malkovich) and Damrish (Daveed Diggs), is bewitched by the art's content. That term, however, comes to have a second, more gruesome context as anyone who attempts to profit from the art starts to die in increasingly unsavory ways through seemingly supernatural means.
It’s clear that Gilroy is attempting to comment on the snobbery of the art world, and criticism in general, through the film, which tends to laugh at how seriously the various characters take themselves. It also questions the divide between the purveyors and the critic, who in the film have a codependent relationship that raises eyebrows about the authenticity on both sides.
It’s difficult, however, to know what to make of the film’s descent into horror-like situations. Is it simply Gilroy showing his disdain for the type of person those characters represent? None of the killing scenarios are all that scary — some, in fact, are hilarious — so it’s unlikely they’ll play well for horror movie fans. Still, without them, the film wouldn’t work at all, so they’re a necessary evil to keep the story progressing.
One way the film does succeed is in creating its own visual art. The actual art in the film is interesting, but it’s the palette created on film by Gilroy and cinematographer Robert Elswit that really catches the eye. This especially comes through in several overhead shots of Los Angeles, a movie trope that wouldn’t normally bear mentioning. Somehow Elswit makes those shots not only noteworthy but stunning, in a way that will make you want to pause the film just to stare at them for a few moments.
Gyllenhaal, known for his eccentric choices in roles, makes the most of Morf, although unfortunately that’s less than he showed in Nightcrawler and other top-notch roles. Russo, who played a ball-buster in Nightcrawler, does so again here and demonstrates that she should be getting way more parts than she is currently booking. Collette and Malkovich class up the joint in smaller roles, while Ashton and Natalia Dyer (Stranger Things) fill the up-and-comer parts nicely.
Velvet Buzzsaw is a film that will likely not satisfy fans of the art world or horror movies, but the combination of talented actors and striking art at least keep it watchable for most of its running time.
Velvet Buzzsaw starts streaming February 1 on Netflix.