Writer/director Dan Gilroy, responsible for the razor-sharp and delightfully disturbed Nightcrawler (2014), has shown a knack for clever satire. When it was announced that his next feature would be a skewering of the world of commercial art, in the form of a horror/comedy, I could see the potential for Gilroy to bring his clever writing into something a little weirder and wackier. This new film, Velvet Buzzsaw, is an unabashed B-movie filled to the brim with A-List talent, but one that does not have anything clever to say about its subject and not enough pure insanity to make up for it.
Velvet Buzzsaw stars the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Collette, and Zawe Ashton as various art critics and art profiteers with amusingly pretentious names Morf Vandewalt, Rhodora Haze, Josephina, and Gretchen, respectively. All of them are looking for the next big artistic statement they can profit off of. When Josephina’s neighbor dies suddenly, she enters his abode to find a bunch of striking, foreboding paintings created by the now-deceased man. The instructions in the man’s will are to destroy the art, but Rhodora and Josephina have other plans. Little do they know that demonic spirits inhabit the art, intent on seeking revenge upon those who profit off of the paintings.
For a film with a cast this stacked, it is a shame that only one or two of them are able to overcome the lackluster writing to make any sort of impression. Jake Gyllenhaal knows exactly what kind of movie he is in, chewing the scenery like nobody’s business. He is by far the most entertaining aspect of Velvet Buzzsaw, followed by Toni Collette’s venomous Gretchen. Both actors get the mean-spiritedness of their characters just right. The same can’t be said for Rene Russo; I genuinely can’t discern whether the performance is intentionally or unintentionally bad. Zawe Ashton is solid, delivering her lines with a monotony that works, but really only when the writing works.
It also doesn’t help that, tonally, many of the performances seem to be on another wavelength entirely. John Malkovich has a small role as a struggling artist, doing a completely 180 from his stereotypical unbridled rage that we see in so many of his performances. Here, he basically mumbles all of his lines, and whether it was intentional or not, it definitely feels as if Malkovich is on autopilot. This doesn’t mesh well with the much showier work from Gyllenhaal and Collette. Two of the biggest rising stars last year, Billy Magnussen and Daveed Diggs, are given nothing to work with. Even Natalia Dyer’s (Stranger Things) character is reduced to not much more than a punchline.
The biggest problem here lies in the script, which delivers its ideas in ways that are too on-the-nose to really cut deep. Thus, the satirical element falls flat, on top of the fact that Gilroy does not give all of these pretentious characters anything bitingly clever to say. And so, the audience remains stuck listening to unlikable people being mean to each other, without much wit, impatiently anticipating their swift demise. There are moments here and there that work, such as a running gag about Morf refusing to give an office assistant any of his attention. One scene following the most brutal murder in the film strikes just the right balance of darkly humorous and clever satire, getting funnier with each new piece of information. And yet, nothing else in the film lives up to that moment. It’s a shame that a film about greedy people being murdered by art is not nearly as fun and insane as it sounds.
Velvet Buzzsaw has a clever idea for a story. Unfortunately, it does not convey this idea in a clever way, resulting in a film that feels like wasted potential. (It must be noted that if you do intend to watch this film, do NOT watch the trailer beforehand, as it gives away just about every “shock-value” moment in the film.) For all the tremendous talent involved both in front of and behind the camera, I expected more.
Rated R, Velvet Buzzsaw is now streaming on Netflix.