If anything can be taken away from Velvet Buzzsaw, it’s that Jake Gyllenhaal is down for whatever.
The actor’s chameleonic spirit is a boon to this horror-satire film, out on Netflix after debuting this past week at Sundance. Were it not for the “go-for-it” attitude of Gyllenhaal (currently in the thralls of a pop culture moment after his scene-stealing appearance in the Spider-Man: Far From Home trailer) and his fellow actors, Velvet Buzzsaw wouldn’t be nearly as watchable as it is.
Luckily for director Dan Gilroy, he’s got a stacked cast willing to jump down this rabbit hole into the underbelly of L.A.’s art scene, with its obscene avarice, intellectual posturing, detached casual sex and general moral bankruptcy. All of this awfulness leads to the instant success of an art collection by Ventril Dease, an unknown artist found dead in the apartment building of Josephina (Zawe Ashton), a frustrated and ambitious art agent who steals his works (and his cat). The art – dark, twisted, mysterious, and irresistible to those looking for the next big cash grab – entrances everyone in this wide-ranging yet close-knit industry: Josephina’s ice queen gallery boss Rhodora (Rene Russo), art curator Gretchen (Toni Collette), recovering alcoholic artist Piers (John Malkovich) and Morf Vandelwalt (Jake Gyllenhaal), a deeply self-serious art critic who engages in a “taste relationship” with Josephina. Their self-interests blind them to the supernatural, evil, “truly goddamn strange” (as Morf puts it) power behind the pieces, until it is too late and blood starts spraying all over the white gallery walls.
The art-as-villain concept should work well for a horror film: who hasn’t taken a second look at a painting, wondering if those eyes were following you as pass by? And yet, Velvet Buzzsaw lacks genuinely scary thrills. Yes, there’s a moment or two when you may jump in surprise, but it’s more a reflex to fairly obvious scoring and shot set-up. Those shots are well-constructed – Dan Gilroy has an eye for striking imagery – but they don’t explain why these pieces of art are out brutally killing smarmy art lovers. We eventually learn that Dease was a murderous psychopath who used blood for the reddish-blacks in his works, but there’s still a disconnect between the artist and his murderous art. Even more confusing is when pieces not created by Dease join in on the killing, eviscerating limbs and strangling people against gates for fun, I guess. It’s all gory and visceral and disturbing, but’s also random, nonsensical and a bit dull after awhile as you wait to see what mildly creative murder is up next. There’s no chill down your spine; you’re just puzzled.
You also find yourself sympathizing with the art and appreciating their efforts to rid the world of these objectively awful human beings. Velvet Buzzsaw is a biting deconstruction of art commodification, ripping it as a soulless, ostentatious enterprise with the subtlety of, well, a buzzsaw. Gilroy spares no celluloid or line of dialogue in sending up the entire industry, highlighting the ridiculousness and artifice every chance he gets. You can practically hear him groaning from his keyboard every time Morf says a word like “ensorcelled” without a touch of irony. Nothing and no one is left unscathed, from the grumbling art installer who name drops galleries with ease, to the millennial gallery assistant who is worried less about regularly encountering dead bosses than she is returning to Michigan because she can’t pay her rent. Of course, his characters are blissfully unaware of how obnoxiously risible they are, which makes for an easy watch, if only to laugh at their expense. The satire works better than the horror by far; it’s sharp, unrelenting, and unsubtle in a good way. The problem is that the film hedges its insight on the horror, which is so underwhelming that the film ultimately has less to say than its avant-garde collection of severe wigs, top-buttoned starch shirts, and thick-rimmed glasses.
It’s a shame, because that collection is great. Jake Gyllenhaal alone is worth the price of admission, putting his wide-eyed intensity to excellent use. He pulls off the impressive feat of conveying Morf’s intense artifice while also being deeply engrossed and sincere in the role. Gyllenhaal is one of the few actors who could say “ensorcelled” without sounding ridiculous, and the fact he gets away with that and a host of other truly absurd lines is a testament to his excellence. Rene Russo, frequently underrated, lobs off cruelty with dispassionate ease that betrays Rhodora’s insecurities well. Zawe Ashton grasps Josephina’s noxious social climbing well, even if she overplays the intensity of it a hair too much. Toni Collette, in the aforementioned severe wig, largely exists as death fodder, but she leaves a cut-throat impression. John Malkovich, pompously detached, does as well, even though he is seriously underused and could’ve been left on the cutting room floor without incident.
Velvet Buzzsaw wants to offer some challenging commentary about the real price of art amongst bidding wars and overwrought critiques. Sadly, it’s too thin not to be covered up by the liberal amounts of blood splattered everywhere. If you divorce the film from its loftier ambitions, it is absurdly funny enough to sit through without getting bored. That, and you get a bug-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal? Call me ensorcelled.