Review: Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)


“All art is dangerous.” These are the words of Rene Russo’s steely art gallerist Rhodora Haze near the end of Dan Gilroy’s artworld satire/horror film, Velvet Buzzsaw, which recently premiered on Netflix. In the moment, the words are a sarcastic dismissal of a theory about why the awful occurrences in the film keep happening, but they also operate as the film’s central thesis, which is that for a certain subset of ultra-wealthy, ultra-pretentious Los Angelenos, art is a matter of life and death. It’s almost beside the point whether the statement is literal or figurative, that the artworks at the centre of Velvet Buzzsaw kill the people who profit off of them; even if they didn’t, the characters might kill each other to acquire some precious gallery space or display the newest hot thing. These are the type of people they are, and Gilroy relishes every opportunity to punish their hubris and greed.

Back on firmer ground after the disappointment of Roman J. Israel, Esq., which followed up his brilliant debut feature, Nightcrawler, Velvet Buzzsaw once again finds Gilroy operating in the sun-bleached streets of Los Angeles and depicting a subculture with unrelenting cynicism. The central figures are Russo’s Rhodora Haze, Jake Gyllenhaal’s powerful art critic, Morf Vandewalt, and Zawe Ashton’s up-and-coming gallerist, Josephina. The early moments of the film are a straightforward satire, taking us to gallery shows and behind-the-scenes at art conventions to watch as these artistic vultures pick the bones off of each other and discuss how meaningful their shallow work is.

Soon enough, Josephina discovers some paintings from a neighbour who died, and instead of allowing them to be destroyed as per his instructions, she steals them and puts them on display. They become a sensation, but they also start killing the characters that profit off of them. At this points, Velvet Buzzsaw shifts from satire to horror film and Gilroy’s objective becomes clear. The thing is, the horror film in Velvet Buzzsaw is not a generic framework through which to employ satire. It’s actually the reverse: the satire is the framework for the horror.

Although modern horror has become about exploring everything from trauma to institutional racism to mental illness through metaphor, disguising a serious topic in B-movie thrills so as to make it palatable to mass audiences, horror films of the past were often less about social commentary and more about punishing the moral transgressions of characters. Velvet Buzzsaw operates more in this classical manner, using the satire of the artworld as an excuse to punish the characters and absolve the audience of any ethical implication in the fun of watching the characters die in inventive ways.

Thus, by the time we watch a painting literally consume a character, absorbing her as long strands of paint climb up her skin like a viral contagion spreading, it’s clear that the visceral thrill of such a scene is the whole point of the film. Luckily, Gilroy provides several visually-fascinating methods of killing the characters, even if none of the deaths are particularly scary. One moment, where a painting of monkeys literally reach out and grab a character, pulling them into the painting to murder them, seems like something out of an episode of Masters of Horror or Tales of the Crypt. It’s ridiculous, but also entertaining. And when coming alongside the bitter assault on artworld pretension that comprises most of the non-horror scenes, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Gilroy is after something more meaningful.

But this assumption would be akin to making the same mistakes the characters themselves do when addressing the artworks in the film. Just because art is new and glossy and seemingly about “something important” doesn’t mean it’s actually more significant than it seems on the surface. Sometimes the superficial pleasures are the raison d’être; you don’t need to overthink it.

So while Velvet Buzzsaw may seem self-important on the surface, it’s actually a fast-paced, entertaining horror throwback, one that has a series of well-constructed death scenes that punish hilarious caricatures of the types of people we all can’t stand. It’s well-shot and deliciously acted, especially by Gyllenhaal who rises above his caricature and delivers a convincing portrait of existential angst alongside the satirical laughs. It’s as efficient a film as Netflix has funded since they threw their hat into the production game.

It doesn’t matter whether or not Gilroy intends his film to be some definitive statement on the art world. Artistic intent rarely matters; only the art itself does. And the film as it stands is simply a lurid fantasy about shallow people being undone by their own hunger for wealth and importance. And that’s not a bad thing.

Velvet Buzzsaw gets modern art well enough to know that audiences may mistake its signifiers for something more profound, but don’t make the same mistake the characters in the film do. Understand that loud declarations about relevance do not make a film relevant, and that there’s nothing wrong with an old-fashioned bloody horror film that punishes bad people for being bad.

7 out of 10

Velvet Buzzsaw (2019, United States)

Written and directed by Dan Gilroy; starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Collette, Zawe Ashton, Tom Sturridge, Natalia Dyer, Daveed Diggs, Billy Magnussen, John Malkovich.