Velvet Buzzsaw (Dan Gilroy, 2019) 3 out of 4 stars.
Documentarian Nathaniel Kahn’s The Price of Everything came out this past fall, and in it the director explores the outrageous sums involved in buying and selling art in today’s market. How value is determined is the constant question on everyone’s mind, and the shaping of opinion is the coin of the aesthetic realm. Now comes Dan Gilroy’s Velvet Buzzsaw, a fictional version of a not dissimilar world, only this time the stakes are higher. Make any kind of misstep and you may lose not just millions, but your life. The film offers an entertaining mix of satire and horror, though the former is often a little too on-the-nose and the latter inadequately supported by backstory. No matter, together the two styles come together with a delightful crushing of hopes, dreams … and arteries.
Jake Gyllenhaal (Demolition) plays Morf Vandewalt, a successful art critic whose reviews make or break a work’s fortune. Bisexual, and stuck in a fading relationship with a man, he finds himself now drawn to the very female Josephina (Zawe Ashton, Dreams of a Life), assistant to prominent gallery owner and dealer Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo, Frank and Cindy). Morf and Rhodora have a cozy rapport, the one’s writing directly affecting the worth of the other’s holdings. Indeed, one of the best aspects of the script, written by Gilroy (Nightcrawler), as well, is its portrayal of the collusion between all elements of the art world: if someone itches, and it’s to the benefit of someone else to scratch, then scratch they will. Unfortunately for Josephina, she’s on the outs with Rhodora. But then one day, in the apartment of a deceased resident of her apartment complex, Josephina discovers a treasure trove of paintings done by the dead man. The fact that his will expressly stated that they be destroyed is ignored, and soon Josephina is conspiring with Rhodora and Morf on a splashy gallery launch.
Which is when the bodies start to pile up, in gruesome fashion. Collusion comes at a cost, it seems: the doyens of public taste are literally being consumed by the art they fetishize. One character is pulled inside a painting, never to be seen again; another is hung from within an exhibit; someone else is dismembered by a hitherto benign interactive sphere; and on and on. The titular furry power tool – the name of Rhodora’s punk band when a young woman – even plays an important (and bloody) part. Still, as Rhodora states, “All art is dangerous,” so best not be surprised when its effects are lethal.
The large ensemble cast is first-rate, with Toni Collette (Hereditary), Daveed Diggs (Blindspotting), Natalia Dyer (Nancy Wheeler on Netflix’s Stranger Things), and John Malkovich (Bird Box) among them. Overall, the feast of self-destruction is a tasty one, the eruptions of gore more intentionally humorous than frightening. One just wishes for a less obvious polemic and a stronger narrative foundation for the supernatural shenanigans. Still, much of it is such fun that perhaps we should just sit back and enjoy the show. The film is out on Netflix right now, so watch and judge for yourself. The more people look and see, the happier Rhodora and company will be.