“Critique is so limiting and emotionally draining.”
Maybe that’s true but Velvet Buzzsaw – the new Netflix horror-satire from Nightcrawler writer/director Dan Gilroy – doesn’t have any right to say it. The film, although visually impressive and stunningly composed, feels as shallow as its unlikeable ensemble cast and rarely flounders above the average mark as either a horror or a satire. Despite the oxymoronic name Velvet Buzzsaw feels toothless.
Art critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a tastemaker of the LA art scene alongside gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), curator assistant Gretchen (Toni Collette) and agent Josephina (Zawe Ashton). When Josephina’s neighbour Vetril Dease (Alan Mandell) dies she discovers a wealth of haunting, expressive paintings. Against Dease’s wishes the paintings begin to be sold and horrifying incidents afflict those that profit from them.
So far so very promising. But Velvet Buzzsaw never meets expectations either as the psychological horror or as the biting satire it so clearly wants to be. It’s scares never actually scare and it’s supposed satire dives no deeper than surface level. Add to that a cast of deeply rotten and detestable characters and Velvet Buzzsaw’s value plummets further. Much of it comes from Gilroy’s juvenile and often empty script.
“If it bleeds, it leads” is a criticism regularly levelled at journalism that is seen to have crossed ethical boundaries. Gilroy examined this quite well in Nightcrawler, thanks mostly to Gyllenhaal’s intensity. The problem with the above phrase is that it’s about 40 years old. So too are Gilroy’s opinions on the supposedly vacuous and shallow art world he depicts in Velvet Buzzsaw. The characters are paper thin caricatures and the only likeable or interesting ones, Natalia Dyer’s Coco and John Malkovich’s Piers, aren’t given nearly enough range or depth.
If anything Coco should be the main character here. Dyer’s shown great promise in Stranger Things and Gilroy’s fixation on Vandewalt and his despicable cronies robs the film of any real heart. Her outsider perspective on this ugly world as well as her desperation to fit in speaks of a road not taken. John Malkovich is wasted as ageing, fading artist Piers and like Dyer should have been given so much more. A horror-satire from the intern and a failed artist’s point-of-view is a cruelly missed opportunity. Still, much like its many stars Velvet Buzzsaw is beautiful to look at.
Further Reading: If It Bleeds, It Leads | Nightcrawler And Exploitation In Media
Impeccably lit and excellently shot this version of LA is a far cry from the grimy, cheap looking city Gilroy showed in Nightcrawler. Stunning aerial shots of the sprawling metropolis at night and during the day break the film into its separate acts. Cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) often skews his angles ever so slightly and glides the camera smoothly between characters at the various packed events they attend. If Velvet Buzzsaw is flawed in almost every other regard then it’s cinematography is it’s one saving grace.
Velvet Buzzsaw has so very little to say. It’s satire never elicited a laugh nor did its horror actually scare me. When the characters are this thinly drawn in a story so rich with potential then nearly everything in the film is bound to disappoint. Watching Gyllenhaal try to draw empathy from Vandewalt is like watching someone try to draw blood from a stone. Maybe this is too on the nose but Velvet Buzzsaw feels exactly like what it hates: an empty, heartless piece of art.