Art Attack

Review: Velvet Buzzsaw paints a dark canvas but is worse than the sum of its p-arts

Director    Dan Gilroy
Written By    Dan Gilroy
Starring    Jake Gyllenhaal, Zawe Ashton, Rene Russo, Toni Collette, John Malkovich
Review: Velvet Buzzsaw paints a dark canvas but is worse than the sum of its p-arts Movie Review


Grade C+

Luke Whiston

8th February 2019

A few years ago I had a bit of an epiphany regarding my personal relationship with art (such as it is that the purpose and understanding of art as a human endeavour is the result of a complex mish-mash of evolutionary need and life experience resulting in a unique perspective held only to oneself imho). It was around the time of political unrest in a country - not going to say which one but it was one of those problematic countries you see on the news often, don't like the gays much - where a group of artists had collaborated to send a satirical message to their government which was more than likely going to see them turn up in a ditch. It was an act that made me question my complete self: would I, a comically stereotypical white man, ever do anything so profoundly brave with my creative output? I mean besides calling Nigel Farage a cock on Twitter? Probably not. I'll probably just carry on ascending to middle class via osmosis, stopping to tut whenever Netflix raise their prices by 20p so they can continue making mediocre originals.

I've never understood why they make films that get worse as they go along. You'd think teams of producers with millions of dollars to get A-list stars in the same place to act out a script that's taken years to polish would all be in service of a satisfying climax. Dan Gilroy's much anticipated re-team with Jake Gyllenhaal following the supremely creepy Nightcrawler starts promisingly enough, introducing us to a collection of grinning LA art world bastards ready to stab each other in the back for the Next Big Thing - which in this case is the apparently cursed body of work of a previously undiscovered deceased artist - but ironically it's when the blood does begin to flow that things fall apart.

Yeah no this is definitely the future of cinema.

Morf Vandewalt (Gyllenhaal, channelling a hench Andy Warhol Halloween costume) is an art critic who holds the kind of sway that can make or break an artist. He's in such hot demand that gallery owners and buyers fawn over him to secure his patronage. Two rival fawners are Gretchen (Toni Collette) and Rhodora (Rene Russo), a pair of brass knuckles who'll say or do anything to stay on top. Further down the food chain is Josephina (Zawe Ashton), who stakes her claim in this cutthroat world after making the discovery that acts as the plot propellant, and has to up her game or become a victim along the way. John Malkovich is in the film too.

Everyone on screen is a complete prick, so it never feels like the deaths weren't earned in some way
As you might have already guessed the theme of Velvet Buzzsaw is greed, with a dash of he-fucked, she-fucked melodrama thrown in. Most conversations revolve around how many millions can be squeezed out of a piece of artwork, with little thought for the human cost. This is all by design, of course. As with Nightcrawler there's a charged air of sociopathy running through everything and everyone, but unlike Nightcrawler Gilroy has toyed with a supernatural element - one which sees characters pursued from beyond the grave for their materialistic ways.

Naturally everything turns out great and everyone goes home holding hands at the end having learnt their lesson. Not really. In a slightly dated hark back to the Final Destinations of old we're treated to a series of grisly and mysterious deaths, as the dwindling list of survivors gradually piece things together and realise their time may too be approaching. The problem with all this is that everyone on screen is by and large a complete prick, so it never feels like the deaths weren't earned in some way. Which may be the point, but with little in the way of redemption - and, crucially, no irony to the deaths themselves - it feels like a lot of setup and no payoff.

The look of a man who is definitely called 'Morf'.

Despite Gilroy's ambitious efforts to weave multiple threads and genres together, the end result of Velvet Buzzsaw is like hanging too much wet knitwear on a clothesline: saggy and the sleeves are touching the ground. Which leaves me scratching my head and brings me back to my opening paragraph. The film sits so uncomfortably after the spooky happenings kick off, you'd think someone would have noticed and done something about it. It's not like Netflix work to any traditional seasonal conventions.

But this is speculative. Velvet Buzzsaw isn't an objectively bad film by any stretch, it just feels held back. Gyllenhaal brings a lot of his usual watchability - somewhere just above his Nightcrawler character in terms of manicness, and way to the left of his Okja character in terms of piercing shrieks on the Gyllenhaal Performance Matrix. Dan Gilroy has proved he's capable of menacing filmmaking that leaves you feeling dirty to your core, but on this occasion he's painting by numbers.

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