Velvet Buzzsaw’s mouth writes a check that its ass can’t cash.
Does it seem like movie trailers have been misleading more than ever lately? Or is it just me? Do producers and marketing teams feel like they have to lie to audience members in order to get asses in seats? I, for one, am getting fed up with having my intelligence repeatedly insulted by all the misleading advertisement, particularly within the horror genre.
Written and directed by Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler), Velvet Buzzsaw is a satirical horror movie that comments on the shallowness, pretentiousness, and over commercialization of the Los Angeles art scene. If the film had been advertised as a satire/drama that had a dash of horror and a pinch of gore thrown in at the end, I might have been satisfied with that. However, it was advertised as an intense psychological thriller, and boy, did it fail to deliver.
Art gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), who is in competition with art gallery owner Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge), gains an edge when she acquires some dark and mysterious paintings through one of her employees, Josephina (Zawe Ashton). The portraits and scenes were painted by Vetril Dease (Alan Mandell), a tenant in Josephina’s apartment building who passes away. Despite his wishes to have all of the paintings thrown out upon his death, Josephina takes them from his apartment and brings them to Rhodora’s gallery.
Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal), an art critic known for his scathing reviews, agrees to write a pamphlet to help the new exhibit garner attention in exchange for some of the paintings. Eventually strange things start happening; people disappear and die under mysterious circumstances, and Morf begins to have frightening hallucinations around the Dease paintings. Once he realizes that the paintings are essentially “cursed” (for lack of a better term) and that Dease willed them to be destroyed, he fights to have them destroyed.
Gyllenhaal’s performance is wonderful. He is self-righteous and flamboyant: a perfect parody of the pretentious critics who seem to get their rocks off on finding ways to denigrate artists’ work. Toni Collette also gives a great performance as the ambitious, ball-busting curator/private buyer, Gretchen, as does Natalia Dyer as the seemingly meek, yet knowledgeable, assistant, Coco. In general, the acting and the production design are both marvelous, but overall, there are a lot of moving pieces to this film that simply don’t add up.
One of the major shortcomings of the film is that it doesn’t use some of the characters to their full potential, particularly Damrish (Daveed Diggs) and Piers (John Malkovich). They’re juxtaposed as old and new, “high” art versus “street” art, but the two artists are barely in the film. Damrish and his art style are important to Josephina’s demise, but Piers makes virtually no impact on the film. He disappears for a majority of the film, retreating to Rhodora’s beach house in order to rejuvenate and re-inspire himself, but he is not at all affected by the shit show that goes down with the Dease paintings.
Another weakness of the film is its failure to explain the origin of the “curse” or how it works. I’m not a completist by any means, but I do feel that it is the responsibility of filmmakers to commit to the world they’re building make the most of the elements they choose to present. The origin is a half-assed backstory that Dease has an abusive father, has spent time living in a mental institution, and has used human blood in all of his paintings. None of this, however, explains what motivates Dease to use (presumably his own) blood in his works or how that translates to his paintings taking on a life of their own, nor does it explain why some people are targeted and killed but not others. The implication is that everyone who profited from his paintings has to die due to their greed, but this would have been much better supported had there been any indication that Dease himself was anti-capitalist/anti-consumerism.
Instead of really focusing on a few elements and presenting them in a way that made at least a modicum of sense, several incomplete and disjointed ideas were woven together in a crazy, weak web of chaos.
If you know going in that Velvet Buzzsaw is more of a dark satire than it is a horror film, it’s probably easier to digest upon the first viewing. If not, this movie will have you telling the horror genre, “I wish I knew how to quit you.”
Velvet Buzzsaw is currently streaming on Netflix.