Velvet Buzzsaw is a new satirical horror film from Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) set in the L.A. art world. The movie is about a supernatural force that enacts revenge on those who are overwhelmed with greed in the art world when a series of paintings by an unknown dead artist is discovered. It debuted at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival to positive reviews.
The concept is pretty brilliant. The idea of killer paintings may not be entirely new (there was a scene in It involving a painting coming to life), but it is fun and wacky nonetheless. The situation allows for some pretty creative death scenes and has the potential for some really interesting commentary. If you can embrace the film’s campier elements, it is sure to be a more enjoyable experience.
That being said, the movie isn’t able to fully deliver on its potential because the dialogue is not written effectively. The film feels very distant from the world in which it is set. It feels like Gilroy’s understanding of the art world is rudimentary, based in stereotypes rather than the way in which people truly act and behave. This is especially problematic in the opening scenes, in which it seems like Gilroy was throwing in as much technical jargon as possible to make it seem intelligent.
The characterization suffers as a result of the lackuster dialogue. Since the dialogue is unrealistic, the characters feel rather hokey. It’s hard to get behind any of these characters because they feel less like actual people and more like exaggerated caricatures of people. With some characters, like Rhodora, this is likely the point. But even the characters we are supposed to like, such as Morf, are unsympathetic.
The film does manage to pull off some of its satire, despite the constant obstacle of the dialogue. The central message revolves around the meaning and value of art. Is art only worth something if it is expensive, or does it have inherent value regardless of its monetary worth? Obviously, the movie answers this question in a satirical and didactic way, and the results are thought-provoking albeit obvious.
The film’s biggest success is its ensemble. The cast elevates the movie and makes it far more enjoyable than it may otherwise be. The chemistry between the actors is great, and they are able to humorously impersonate the art world, even if the script isn’t. Jake Gyllenhaal hams it up in his role, with quite a few great humorous moments. Toni Collette is solid in her supporting role, bringing a sly wit to the character. Daveed Diggs, John Malkovich, and Billy Magnussen all give interesting supporting turns. That being said, the clear MVP of the cast is Rene Russo, who delivers a performance with so much bite and so much wit that it would be worth watching the film for her alone.
The visuals are very strong too. The movie is predominantly well-lit, which is a nice juxtaposition against the tonally darker content of the script. This also makes the film stand out among the genre, as there are few horror movies that are saturated. The use of art is obviously integral to the story, and the paintings and sculptures used are beautiful. The score is excellent too, adding to the tone and suspense of the film.
Overall, Velvet Buzzsaw was a bit of a disappointment. It is mostly enjoyable, but the dialogue and characters are so unrealistic that it isn’t the masterpiece it should have been.
Velvet Buzzsaw is on Netflix (netflix.com/velvetbuzzsaw) and in select theaters beginning February 1.