High energy and lots of fun, Velvet Buzzsaw has a wonderful cast and inventive set pieces but at times collapses under the weight of its own satire.
Writer/Director Dan Gilroy (Roman J. Israel, Esq) partners once again with Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko, Nocturnal Animals) and Rene Russo (The Thomas Crown Affair), his collaborators on 2014’s outstanding Nightcrawler. Where Nightcrawler was a razor-sharp satire, surgically piercing the industry of news media, Velvet Buzzsaw makes an equally cynical commentary on the art world but swaps the subtlety of the razor blade for the blunt force of a sledgehammer.
Gilroy introduces us to an art world where everyone has their roles, there are the artists earnestly struggling with their creativity and then there are the rest of the players who seek to profit from it. Gyllenhaal plays the wonderfully named Morf Vandewalt, a feared and respected art critic whose keen eye and acerbic pen can make or break careers. As he navigates his way through exhibitions we are introduced to various other caricatures of the art world. There is the avaricious gallery promoter Rhodora Haze (Russo) and her apprentice Josephina (Zawe Ashton) along with their rivals and friends, including promotor/art advisor Gretchen (Toni Collette), artist Piers (John Malkovich), and up and comer Damrish (Daveed Diggs). Gilroy has pulled together a serious cast and each of the actors takes the opportunity to play broadly and chew as much scenery as they can.
Upon discovering her neighbor’s dead body Josephina discovers that the dead man is a gifted artist with an extensive collection of exciting work. Seeing an opportunity to cash in, Josephina and her boss create a buzz, an exhibition, and begin to plot the various ways they can maximize the financial and PR opportunities this discovery brings. However, there is something not quite right about this particular collection of work and all those that try to exploit it for their own profit start to meet increasingly grizzly ends.
The film unselfconsciously makes use of many staple horror tropes with jump scares, portentous music and delightfully camp gore. For the most part this works in its favor, however there are one too many shots of people staring meaningfully at paintings moments before something dramatic happens for my taste. This is a film that does not take itself too seriously. Almost all the characters are unsympathetic and as an audience, you are encouraged to not feel too bad for them as they one by one meet their artistic demise.
Velvet Buzzsaw is hard to pin down; at times it is sardonically creative with some remarkable set pieces (one, in particular, featuring Toni Collette and an art installation stands out) and at other times it meanders without too much point. The film could have benefited from one or two fewer characters and about 10 mins off its runtime, which would have made this feel tighter and create a greater sense of urgency for the narrative, particularly in the final act.
Somewhere in the middle of the fun though is a satire; the message is that great art is diminished by excess commerce and those that seek to profit from it are doomed. This message is delivered over and over again without any trace of subtlety (at one point Gyllenhaal actually spells this out for the audience) but with tongue firmly placed in its cheek.
Velvet Buzzsaw is likely to divide audiences and its overall lack of consistency prevents it from really being a standout, but there is much to like with fun performances and brilliant production design. This is a great one for a Friday night in front of the box, but is unlikely to be troubling too many end of the year lists.