You have to give it to Netflix – I’m not sure another studio would’ve had the guts to fund a film as original and ridiculous as Velvet Buzzsaw. Part satire-part supernatural slasher flick, Nightcrawler director Dan Gilroy reunites with Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo to make a mockery of the LA art scene. It’s a world that’s ripe for parody, from the money-hungry agents to the pretentious critics and the assistants trying to get a foot in the door. There’s a lot of material to cover – and that might just be the problem.
Gyllenhaal plays Morf Vandewalt (yes, that’s his name), an influential art critic with the power to take down an artist with one bad review. He’s the kind of guy that says words like “ensorcelled” like it’s natural, but that might also be down to Gyllenhaal’s ability to embody audacious characters seamlessly. He interacts with a colourful cast of characters as he traverses the art world: agent Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), curator Gretchen (Toni Collette) and assistant Josephina (Zawe Ashton).
There’s some critique lying under its broad brushstrokes, suggesting that there’s a cost that comes with the shallow commodification of art. This cost comes in the form of a sizeable collection of paintings which Josephina finds in the apartment of her deceased neighbour. The paintings incite a frenzy, as Rhodora hiding the true number of paintings to hike up the prices and Morf begins to write a book about the artist.
The artist, Ventril Dease, was in the process of destroying the paintings before his life was cut short, and we eventually learn why when people start dying in bloody Final Destination fashion. The paintings come to life, limbs are torn and the film conjures up imaginative ways for a stationary painting to murder someone. There’s some sense within the violence – Dease has a dark history and the killings feel like a sort of revenge on the hyena-like sellers looking to discover the next buzz-worthy artist, but the film is too focused on draining blood to properly explore its thinly-veiled commentary.
Horror and fine art is an unlikely combination, and the film never really makes it work. It takes the better part of an hour just to establish everything for the gruesome set pieces later, like a slasher film introducing us to its inevitable victims. And its victims are hardly the kind to root for – little more than caricatures, they exist just for giggles and bloodshed. If it took its B-movie roots to heart, the whole thing could’ve been executed in a neat 90 minutes. Velvet Buzzsaw is far from the insightful dark comedy it wants to be – let’s just hope this criticism doesn’t come to bite me back.