Velvet Buzzsaw is a trashy gonzo cocktail about "art"
It’s tough to criticize a movie like Velvet Buzzsaw. Along with fare like, say, Kevin Smith’s Yoga Hosers, the content of Dan Gilroy’s third outing as writer/director explicitly confronts the very notion of criticism head on, defying any effort to do so by no-so-subtly mocking all attempts. But where Velvet Buzzsaw differs from Yoga Hosers is in that, for starters, it’s actually a good movie. Furthermore, Buzzsaw seems less interested in outright condemning criticism so much as it wishes to invite critics to do their work with more consideration toward the artist. Oddly enough, the film also takes a Zoolander-ish approach to the artists themselves, lampooning the world of creatives while establishing the notion that anything which posits itself as above criticism should probably be investigated twice as thoroughly.
But I get ahead of myself. It’s certainly clear that Dan Gilroy has some misgivings about the business end of his medium of choice, just as its clear he’s figured out a way to game the system to his benefit (releasing his latest film direct to Netflix seems to have given him a level of creative freedom which should be celebrated). So while Velvet Buzzsaw is a bit shaggier than his previous films (Nightcrawler, Roman J. Israel, Esq.), it certainly feels like the most auteur-driven piece of his growing filmography.
Buzzsaw begins with a hilarious rundown of what makes the business end of the modern art world tick. Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a well respected art critic. His words can make or break an exhibition, and as a result, he’s insulated from any sort of career comeuppance. Want your show to be a success? Make Morf happy.
“Well I absolutely respect the power of your point of view,” remarks a cohort carefully trying to disagree with Morf without invoking his critical wrath.
Morf works amidst a variety of different gallery owners and art agencies, the most prominent of which belongs to Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo). She’s a former punk rocker whose image has lead to success. An artist under her representation can easily become a global name, which is why, much like Morf, she is not often given any resistance to her whims. So when her nearly disgraced protege Josephina (Zawe Ashton) stumbles across a lifetime’s supply of tremendous paintings in the apartment of her deceased neighbor, Rhodora offers a deal: partner up to sell the newly discovered pieces, and she’ll make sure no one knows that they were essentially stolen (the deceased artist declared in his will that all of his work be destroyed).
It quickly becomes clear that the artist, hilariously named Vetril Dease, was tapping into something much bigger, and much more malevolent with his art. His paintings seem to have a life of their own, and soon those who stand to benefit from their sale start dropping like flies.
A mix of Nocturnal Animals, Mulholland Drive, and, of all things, Final Destination, Gilroy’s horror/comedy/mystery/satire sets its sights on the industry of modern art, specifically the areas of exhibition and sale. It’s a world populated with some of the most colorful, weird, and downright cartoonish faces. In an alternate universe this story belongs to the Coens, but in this strange timeline we find ourselves in, Velvet Buzzsaw takes a different flavor, one not terribly interested in motivating its characters irrespective of plot. This is a liability as much as it’s an asset. On the one had, when things start getting hairy, there’s not much room for character depth without sacrificing the deliciously speedy pace. On the other, when the bodies start piling up, they’re just that: bodies.
While no single character could be accused of being our protagonist, some get heavier coverage than others. This is fitting for the tale which, as I previously mentioned, is driven entirely by plot. Very little happens as a consequence of character action. In fact, once a single greedy decision is made, the remainder of the movie is just the dominoes falling. Granted, these are beautiful dominoes, falling in ways that delight my inner gorehound, and I must commend the filmmakers for riding the line between humor and horror so deftly. Horror and comedy have always been bedfellows, being the only two genres whose success is predicated upon evoking an involuntary reaction from its audience - screams and laughter, respectively.
The art world is a stand in for any industry which seeks to exploit the creative forces which fuel it, as indicated by the myriad personalities on display. Well, maybe that’s a bit generous. There’s really only one personality which pervades the industry, it just dresses up in different fashion. The world Gilroy has created is one that is as funny as it is pathetic, which each artist/critic/gallery owner constantly putting forth an air of self-importance as they hide from the truth they’re reluctant to embrace: it’s all a farce. One man’s art is another man’s trash, and these roles can flip flop in an instant, dependent on things as artificial as money or as finicky as a critic’s mood. In a moment of transparency/self-awareness, Rhodora tiredly states that it’s “sooo much easier to talk about money than art.”
Of course it is. Money can be quantified. Art, on the other hand, is tough to pinpoint. A dead body could be bleeding out on a gallery floor and no one would know to call the authorities on account of its being a potential “immersive piece.”
That’s the size of the satirical club being swung here. It’s not a subtle film, nor is it particularly revolutionary in what it has to say, but it’s a blast nonetheless. Everybody in the cast has been given license to go as big as possible, and it’s a delight to watch them all chew scenery and bicker together. Heck, an entire movie of Toni Collette and Rene Russo bantering pointedly about anything at all would be a winner in my book. Toss in an extremely image conscious Jake Gyllenhaal aggressively monologuing about ethics while trying to reconcile explicit supernaturalia and you’ve got yourself a movie that, even with limited depth, never stops being entertaining. And by the time everything is flying off the rails and we’re gunning through the homestretch in full-on horror mode, it’s hard no to be enamored with the gonzo insanity on display.
Netflix movies are a mixed bag, ranging from the incredible to the unwatchable, but there’s one thing which unites them all: creative freedom. Certainly, there is something to be said about a business model which favors inferior home viewing over the ideal theatrical experience, but weighing it against the opportunity for a filmmaker to flex...it’s a tough call. I’d kill to be able to see something like Velvet Buzzsaw on an giant screen with great sound (the cinematography by Robert Elswit and the score from Marco Beltrami are both exceptional). I also wonder if the content of a theatrically marketed film would be nearly as subversive or fun. Velvet Buzzsaw is far from perfect, but it’s a pure vision from a filmmaker trying to say something personal while having fun saying it. You don’t typically get that at the multiplex.
Velvet Buzzsaw is now streaming on Netflix.