What in the world is a velvet buzzsaw? Well, it isn’t real. Conceivably it’s the type of construction you might find at an art installation, highlighting the divide between the elegance of its design with the brutality of its function. Thus, in Netflix’s art-world thriller Velvet Buzzsaw, it should come as no surprise that the juxtaposition of art and commerce applies to more than just the galleries within the film. Rather, this back-and-forth relationship extends to the film as a whole. What starts out as a thoughtful examination of highfalutin emptiness soon devolves into a rehash of uninspired slasher nonsense.
“It’s an iteration. No originality, no courage. That’s my opinion,” Jake Gyllenhaal’s art critic Morf Vanderwalt describes an animatronic sculpture during the opening sequence of the film. It’s a perplexing line, given the arc of the movie. Writer-director Dan Gilroy clearly understands artistic criticism and the desire to compare one thing to another, and attempts to keep his story fresh by morphing two distinct genres into the same narrative. Perhaps the decision to convert this power-crazed drama into a high-concept Texas Chainsaw Massacre was intended to be a courageous choice, but in practice it feels like a cop-out.
Gilroy’s satirical depiction of the Los Angeles art scene is genuinely riveting. Nobody goes anywhere without dressing to be seen. People discuss artistic works with such aggrandizing language that you wonder if they’ve ever had an existential dilemma themselves. At one point, Gyllenhaal’s character – who, again, is named Morf Vanderwalt – enters a funeral by ridiculing the dead person’s “smog orange” coffin. Such is the burden of a man burdened with exceptional taste; he cannot wholly exist in some scenario without formulating an opinion on it.
Morf represents the most esteemed contemporary critic in an industry that has just found its next big thing. Gallery agent Josephina (Zawe Ashton) finds a man dead in her apartment building, and upon entering his home, happens upon one of the greatest bodies of work she has ever seen. And lucky for her, everyone else seems to agree. Her boss Rhodora (Rene Russo) devises a plan to sell the paintings for millions. Art advisor Gretchen (Toni Collette) intends to buy them for a wealthy client. Morf begins to write a book about the artist, posthumously recognized as Vetril Dease (!). All of them immediately recognize the collection’s inherent greatness, ignoring any common sentiments about the subjectivity of art. None of them stop to consider whether Dease wanted his work to be seen, discussed, or sold in the first place.
Naturally, that’s when the trouble begins. Gradually, and then all at once, Dease’s paintings take revenge against all parties involved with his commercialization. What starts out as a series of tragic coincidences turns into a sinister revolt, pitting the characters within the frames against those who live in the three-dimensional world. For a story that takes care to vitalize the power dynamics of its many interpersonal relationships, it feels like a missed opportunity for the art to becomes the villain, instead of the backdrop for a manipulative battle of egos.
As the bisexual, pretentious embodiment of artistic snobbery, Gyllenhaal couldn’t be better. Every little mannerism, from the self-conscious removal of his glasses to the fifty different ways he folds his arms, feels accurate to his type while specific to his character. And while beneath the surface he’s clearly still a sexy leading man, he plays the introvertedly flamboyant role with complete honesty. The same goes for the rest of the cast. This ensemble wears costumes so gaudy that they feel ripped from an SNL sketch, and yet their nuanced performances make that disjunction feel intentional. Toni Collette is the standout, employing the reserved shrillness she used so well in Hereditary, except in a horribly inappropriate silver wig. If a personification of a velvet buzzsaw ever existed, it would look and act like her.
So why did they have to start dying? Gilroy never provides us a convincing answer. Platitudes about Dease’s artistic wishes are mentioned in vague terms, and an old colleague tells Morf that “he was the kind of guy you left the fuck alone,” but for all of the specificity applied elsewhere, the film’s supernatural demon could be replaced with just about any comic-book supervillain. Even the revelation that the artist painted with his own blood was more effective when Ginny Weasley was doing it in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
Even more baffling, though, is the lack of visual imagination in the storytelling. There Will Be Blood cinematographer Robert Elswit uses an weirdly even lighting scheme, possibly to allow the actors and production design to speak for themselves. However, the decision leaves the film lacking tone, occasionally resembling television shows like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Black Mirror but without the budget of either. The result is a visual experience like that of an art gallery itself, expecting you to focus your attention to the art instead of the surroundings. It’s an interesting experiment, but Gilroy and Elswit don’t quite pull it off.
And yet, they leave you with the confounding notion of having just seen two different movies. There’s the pop-art Shakespearean drama about people who exist only to buy, sell, and internalize the creative energy of others, and the B-movie about killer paintings from hell. Under a more typical cinematic distribution, this dichotomy might make some sense, as an adherence to genre might be necessary to help sell tickets for a strange underground art film. But as a Netflix production, Velvet Buzzsaw shouldn’t require quite the same hook; it could just exist as is, slowly building up critical and popular buzz, and then gaining a bigger audience over time. So it’s more likely that the dual-movie phenomenon is simply the byproduct of a poor artistic choice. As Morf would be sure to tell you, all artists make them at some point.