Velvet Buzzsaw review Jake Gyllenhaal Zawe Ashton

Year: 2019
Director(s): Dan Gilroy
Writer(s): Dan Gilroy
Region of Origin: US
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Rating: R
Digital, Color, 113 mins

Synopsis: After a series of paintings by an unknown artist are discovered, a supernatural force enacts revenge on those who have allowed their greed to get in the way of art. (Source)

Velvet Buzzsaw is a bloody bullseye on the upscale art scene and those that stand to profit from it. Director Dan Gilroy’s latest is the type of absurdity we don’t get enough of. Unabashedly silly, gruesome when it wants to be, and never less than riotous, this film is a special kind of crazy. Replete with a juicy supernatural premise, Gilroy weaves an eerie yarn that isn’t afraid to make us laugh at its characters’ expense. With an interconnected social circle of egotistical art fiends and the circumstances that cause them to unravel, Gilroy packs in a number of bloody mishaps and a third act that goes off the rails in the best way. This fun slasher keeps us guessing, and is worth it alone for the absurd performances that make us beg for more. 

The plot circles around a circle of acquaintances, each brought together by their dealings amidst the Los Angeles art scene. Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a critic who can ascribe value to any given piece or artist. Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo) is an ex-rockstar turned gallery dealer. Josephina (Zawe Ashton) is Rhodora’s second, a hungry underling looking to leave her mark. Gretchen (Toni Collette) is an art curator looking for the next big thing. Lastly, Piers (John Malkovich) is a struggling artist who can’t seem to land his next project. After one of Josephina’s elderly neighbors suddenly dies, she discovers that he was an accomplished artist who meticulously hid his work from the world. She quickly tries to turn a profit from the lost art, but it isn’t long before everyone she knows wants a cut. Even curiouser, the art seems to cause fatal misfortune for those who come in contact with it. 

It isn’t a stretch to say that there’s a lot going on in Gilroy’s oddball film. From top to bottom, it’s a dense experience, highlighted by the way it navigates a gallery of eccentric characters and their greedy whims. These characters constantly stabbing each other in the back or wandering aimlessly through their own existential malaise alone makes the film addicting. The inevitable supernatural elements are merely the icing on top. As the story’s unique centerpiece, the tie that binds is the art that literally haunts its victims. This leads to fascinating ideas about the legacy of art, the soul that’s embedded within, and how some try to exploit it for personal gain. What it all amounts to, is an exploration on the value of art. It can mean different things to different people and reinvent itself as cultural tides shift. This is art horrifically personified and with a life of its own. 

Velvet Buzzsaw review Toni Colette

Even with the film’s commitment to its brand of humor and spooks, the ensemble makes the film an easy recommendation. Across the board, every character is fully formed by committed performances. You can tell the cast is relishing the opportunity to go as crazy as possible. Jake Gyllenhall’s flamboyant Morf is irresistible the further he spirals. Rene Russo’s Rhodora oozes with an irreverent kind of charm and authority. Zawe Ashton’s Josephine and Toni Collette’s Gretchen deliver enterprising additions who always surprise. Even beyond these performances, the broad cast doesn’t have a single weak link here. The marriage of high and low brow is delivered with wild, offbeat abandon.

If there’s a minor gripe about the film, it’s that it somehow feels a bit too safe. Gilroy is attempting to bridge profound ideas with trashy irreverence. As a whole, it definitely works, but the disparate halves somehow stay middle rather than either going full bore. Still, this is a mind-bending horror film that could never be made by a major studio. It hews to its own provocative path, making us laugh as much as think. With its quotable characters, memorable deaths and a sobering jab at self-importance, Velvet Buzzsaw is a much-needed palette cleanser for the genre. It’ll undoubtedly get better with each viewing.