The oceans of money pouring out of Netflix have allowed a lot of unusual movies to be made. It takes a studio with serious fortitude to back a movie like Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma or Duncan Jones’s Mute, while also throwing millions of dollars at Adam Sandler for reasons best understood to themselves. It’s like someone left the company’s online banking logged in and abandoned their phone on a train. Their latest exercise in mind-boggling weirdness is Velvet Buzzsaw, in which Dan Gilroy brings a great deal of his Nightcrawler cast and crew back together for a blood-soaked satire of the art world.
At least, I think that’s what Gilroy’s baffling movie is trying to do. What I know about art wouldn’t fit on the side of a paintbrush and so there’s something immediately alien about the pretentious milieu of this film’s Miami, where cash and sex flow equally, freely. Our entry point is Jake Gyllenhaal as art critic Morf Vandewalt – a man constantly fighting to be as showy and pretentious as his name. He is close friends with Rene Russo’s ruthless gallery owner, Rhodora, and an art curator, played by Toni Collette, who is fond of ending a tense conversation by squealing the word “kisses” and leaving the room.
Gilroy attempts to skewer the pseudo-intellectual art world in these early scenes, which are a carnival of forced friendliness and stilted, artificial emotions. He only succeeds, however, in making you wish this had been a Yorgos Lanthimos joint. Where Gilroy’s world feels cheap and televisual, despite the presence of the usually reliable DP Robert Elswit, Lanthimos’s flair could have brought this unique reality to thrilling life.
The movie kicks into gear in terms of plot when Rhodora’s assistant Josephina (Fresh Meat actor Zawe Ashton) discovers that a recently deceased neighbour of hers was an artist, with a treasure trove of hitherto unseen masterpieces. Ignoring the dead man’s wish that his art be disposed of, she promptly makes a deal with Russo to turn Vetril Dease – who came up with these names? – into the hottest name in the gallery world.
Velvet Buzzsaw was marketed as a horror movie as much as a dark satire, but the film periodically seems to forget that fact. There are supernaturally-induced stalk and slash sequences that are almost exciting, even if they lack the necessary story context to make them work. By creating an enormous ensemble of characters – John Malkovich is entirely surplus to requirements – the film forfeits any ability to focus in on any of these self-absorbed people. They betray and double cross each other often, but the audience is never given any reason to be surprised or, crucially, to care.
And so, with the horror falling mostly flat, does the movie work when it tries for satire? The jibes are obvious and unoriginal, with one character mistaking a pile of rubbish bags for art and numerous people ignoring a dead body under the assumption it’s part of a macabre installation. There was more successful art satire in an episode of The Apprentice last year, in which one contestant was able to sell art by changing his hair and spouting self-confessed balderdash, than in this movie. That’s damning, to say the least.
Any satire that may or may not be present in Velvet Buzzsaw is very quickly undermined by its performances, which push way too far in their attempts to critique flamboyant excess. Gyllenhaal, in particular, is a world away from his career-best work in Nightcrawler, with a turn that’s almost entirely made up of crazy-eyed yelling and unimaginative barbs about how unfulfilling criticism is as a profession. Indeed, the general haze of mediocrity that the film creates is occasionally interrupted by something as strange and terrible as a scene of sexual contact that cuts directly to an angry cat, soundtracked by the roar of a jet engine. You can’t make this stuff up.
It’s a cliché already to suggest that a particular movie wouldn’t have been made in the pre-Netflix days of studio-mandated quality control. And it’s tempting to argue that Velvet Buzzsaw is a big enough swing that it justifies its status as an overwhelming miss. However, the promise of Nightcrawler should have delivered far more than this – two hours of absolute Jackson Pollocks.
Dir: Dan Gilroy
Scr: Dan Gilroy
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Zawe Ashton, Toni Collette, John Malkovich, Tom Sturridge, Natalia Dyer, Daveed Diggs, Billy Magnussen
Prd: Jennifer Fox
DOP: Robert Elswit
Music: Marco Beltrami, Buck Sanders
Run time: 112 mins
Velvet Buzzsaw is available in the UK on Netflix.