Never quite reaching the heights it is aiming for Velvet Buzzsaw is a rather dull affair with some good moments even though it never really breaks free of its horror movie shackles. Good performances and interesting themes make it worth a watch but a predictable plot leaves it as sadly, a bit of a disappointment.
Directing his third feature in the last 5 years, Dan Gilroy adds to the Netflix catalogue with the satirical horror film Velvet Buzzsaw. Following the strange happenings after a dead artist’s paintings are found by a group of greedy art critics and dealers, Velvet Buzzsaw showcases the superficial nature of the high society art world and seeks to punish (as horror films do) those who exploit it for their own selfish needs. Whilst opening strong and highlighting some clever ideas and interesting themes, particularly to do with Los Angeles culture among the wealthy, Velvet Buzzsaw never really breaks out of being just another generic horror film. The movie hits all the beats you expect it to and offers very little in the way of real surprises which is disappointing because Dan Gilroy set himself a high benchmark with these sorts of ideas with his first feature Nightcrawler (2014).
Primarily focusing on Morf Vandewalt portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal, Rhodora Haze portrayed by Rene Russo and Josephina portrayed by Zawe Ashton; Velvet Buzzsaw begins by exploring the relationships between the three characters and establishing each of them in their position within the art world. Morf is the legendary and highly respected critic who essentially as the final say on what is good and what is not. Rhodora is the successful exhibitor and dealer who has a past in the punk movement of the late 70s. Josephina is the captivating but ultimately ruthlessly ambitious and self interested underling of Rhodora trying to prove herself. The connections between the characters are very interesting as each has their own motivations for being interested in the dead artist’s work. Whilst beginning as clever pastiches and caricatures of the real world parallels they represent, the main characters eventually fall into being predictable, one-dimensional and ultimately uninteresting classic horror movie characters who have little in the way of redeemable features resulting in you caring little about their safety.
The plot of the film itself does camouflage itself well under the pretence of being a film about the high art society in LA but it ultimately does follow the generic horror film beats that you expect it to. The characters find something they shouldn’t, use it to their own advantages and are essentially cursed by it leading to their torture and eventual demise by the art that they covet so much. There really isn’t much to talk about in terms of how the story unfolds because it simply does in the same way most horror films do. Do not go into this film expecting surprises and twists. You’ll be guessing all the way through when the characters are going to die and if you’re a horror fan, you’ll be right just about 100% of the time.
Performance wise Jake Gyllenhaal shines as always and you’d be hard pressed to find a film in which he isn’t the standout performance at this point. He perfectly encapsulates the over-dramatic and superficial lifestyle that many in the art world are said to have and performs it with such flamboyance that it is almost worth watching just for him. Rene Russo and Zawe Ashton do admirable jobs supporting but Ashton is clearly the weakest element of the cast. Constantly shocked and wide eyed, it is very difficult to take her character seriously at any point throughout the film and one does wonder if a more over the top rendition of the character was intended but she never quite breaks through the glass ceiling in that regard resulting in a rather cringey performance. John Malkovich also stars as the artist. His character is ultimately probably the most interesting in terms of the film’s themes even though he has barely any baring on the actual plot because he represents the fact that the art world doesn’t really care about the artists and very rarely acknowledges them, they simply produce the work and then pass it onto the dealers and critics to devour it like sharks.
Visually the film doesn’t do much to break any boundaries or show anything interesting, another disappointment considering the excellent visual style of Nightcrawler for which Robert Elswit also did the cinematography for. There’s just about enough in the way of clever special effects that keep it interesting but beyond that there’s nothing particularly special here. What’s lacking is a dedicated style throughout. The film never settles on being a thriller or a horror or a drama and therefore confuses itself tonally and subsequently visually for the duration. The resulting product is unfortunately whilst very well put together, underwhelming and quite boring.
Without thinking about it too much, Velvet Buzzsaw is a decent horror film with some strong themes that are highlighted in the opening but are left behind to make way for a more generic horror plot. There is something to be enjoyed here even if the product overall is rather disappointing. If you like horror you won’t feel like you’ve wasted your time on this one.