“Velvet Buzzsaw” refers to the former punk band of art manager Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), a music group that became outmoded and slipped into what former street artist Damrish (Daveed Diggs) calls “self-parody.”
Velvet Buzzsaw, the latest from Dan Gilroy, has similar punk rock ambitions that bleed easily into self-parody. Or maybe it’s just parody.
In its opening gambit, Buzzsaw sees a swirl of well-to-do art types at a Miami gallery exhibition. Manager Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge) is trying to poach veteran artist Piers (John Malkovich) from Rhodora, while Rhodora courts Damrish. Critic Morf Vanderwalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) pauses from making passing critiques at pieces to stare agog at “Sphere,” a chrome ball filled with holes meant to represent “different things for all people.” It is “desire.” It is “sex.” Morf makes a quick comment on its awesomeness, almost as if its effectiveness as an art installation is irrelevant to him, then he moves on to make a pass at Rhodora’s PA Josephina (Zawe Ashton).
The building, and later the movie in general, is a cloud of vacuous pretension masking a general lack of satisfaction. Gilroy’s script presents something to challenge this, to bring ineffable, haunting beauty to these vacant characters and then, in monkey’s paw fashion, rip the rug out from under them.
It is a comment on the emptiness of art as commodity and the exceedingly desperate, empty people that frequent its circle. This is certainly nothing new. The sterile, rather arbitrary world of beauty is put under the cinematic microscope often (the most recent examples that spring to mind, and arguably accomplish their task more effectively than Buzzsaw: Nocturnal Animals and The Neon Demon).
All that is truly different here is Gilroy’s blend of genre. It is a parody, which becomes a mystery, which becomes a supernatural horror. In all cases, it comes off as superficial studies of genre.
What stands apart, though, is the ensemble cast, some well-written petty dialogue, and a climactic sequence near the end. While no single character gets a whole lot to do, depth-wise, each actor gets there moments. And when your cast boasts the likes of Russo, Gyllenhaal, Toni Collette, and Malkovich, you’re going to want to show them off.
But no performance is particularly striking. They are all suitable for the project, but this is no Nightcrawler, in which Gyllenhaal gives one of his most unsettling performances. He is fun here as a petty man with plenty of trite words—he cannot help but be a critic to everything he sees—but he nor any other member of the cast steals the movie.
All the same, Velvet Buzzsaw feels like a spiritual sequel to Nightcrawler in some respects. Less gritty realism, in this case, but the desire of Gilroy to examine the blurred line between aesthetics and profit carries over. In Nightcrawler, it is a more openly seedy, working-class examination. In Buzzsaw, the self-described “elites” of the L.A. art scene are exposed for their seediness. But there is little surprise in this expose.
It is all rather on-the-nose when taken as a whole. At one point in the film, an exhibition installer who moonlights as an artist (because almost everyone in this film moonlights as an artist) named Bryson (Billy Magnussen) drives into a roadside stop-off with a huge sign reading: “HUMBLE.” This is a good representation of the on-the-nose properties of the cultural attack at work in the film.
Ultimately, this genre exercise yields little in the way of fear, critical dissection, or mystique. The mystery at play, involving the dead artist who acts as the inciting incident, is dropped before it reaches an adequate resolution. The horror elements are limited to what is necessary to move the plot, providing some intriguing imagery but also lazy false jump scares involving cats. And the self-parody, if it truly is self-parody, is housed too snugly within what it mocks to be novel, and this makes it appear just as vacant as the vacant thing it aims to tear down.
Velvet Buzzsaw: C+
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)