Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Art lives and dies off of that fact. Some will see a wall painted half white, half black, and see a plain, boring wall. Others will see a statement on the wedge between race. Still others wouldn’t be caught dead in an art museum. The point is, we all see things differently, and because of that, art effects each of us differently. And in the case of Velvet Buzzsaw, I can appreciate the artist, but I’m not seeing the beauty…
…Which is pretty damn frustrating, because I’m a huge fan of director Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, which is a provocative, moody thriller featuring a career performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, all things which Velvet Buzzsaw is not or does not have. Written/directed by Gilroy, Velvet Buzzsaw is a film with a badass title, about a collection of paintings by an unknown artist which are discovered by a group of stuck-up socialites who decide to profit off the art. It isn’t long though before supernatural forces begin taking vengeance on the art dealers for allowing their greed to overcome them.
If there’s anything that is especially satisfying in Velvet Buzzsaw, it’s the fact that this horrid group of characters deserves every bit of what’s coming to them, if only for the fact that each of them is an abhorrent concoction of obnoxious dialogue and non-existent morality. Don’t take that the wrong way though. The cast is brilliant, and loaded with all-stars. Gyllenhaal (Morf), Rene Russo (Rhodora), Zawe Ashton (Josephina), Toni Collette (Gretchen), and John Malkovich (Piers), is a lineup to die for, and all deliver the sort of strong performances they’re known for. Without the strength of the cast, I tremble at the thought of what Velvet Buzzsaw would be otherwise.
None of these characters are, by any definition, “likeable”. Russo as Rhodora is perhaps the most so, mostly because she is so much fun to watch as a cutthroat woman who you simply do not fuck with. Owning the moniker that the title is based on, Russo lives up to the name her character once went by, sawing through anyone who gets in her way. Gyllenhaal is great as usual at playing an overly manic oddball, and Collette is once again allowed to show those flashes of deep anger and loathing that we loved her for in Hereditary and so many other films. It’s Gilroy’s script though, completely intentionally, which fills the casts mouths with dialogue so foreign to them, they might as well be holding bees under their tongues. Gilroy is a great writer, and I understand his intention in wanting us to see these characters a certain way, but I’d rather that psycho from Audition whisper “ti-ti-ti” in my ear over and over than hear Gyllenhaal describe something like he’s in a damn Shakespearean poem again. These are characters that live freely in their sexuality and desire, hungry for the next great experience, which makes them fascinating people, but human beings do not talk like this. It’s as if they’re from another planet, where everyone thinks they’re James Bond, if he were an artist at something other than killing, but they’re not, damnit, because no one is as charming (though rapey) as Bond.
But again, that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? In watching Velvet Buzzsaw, it becomes pretty clear that maybe we’re not supposed to like these characters. Which is a bummer for the viewer, because there’s nothing less exciting than watching people you hate for two whole hours, but their actions and vocabulary are central to the themes of Velvet Buzzsaw. That’s because Gyllenhaal and the rest are playing nothing but a bunch of fakers. Washed up artists. People who only pretend to see the meaning of the art, yet never have any real idea of what they’re talking about. They’ve forgotten what art is. They’re dead inside, uninspired, a shell attempting to become full with cash and success. Honestly, they remind me of a majority of the kids I went to film school with. You’d be surprised (or maybe not), at how many people want to get into the film industry just to get rich, without much love for the art itself. If you’re one of those people, let me tell you right now, there are easier ways to make money. Plus, you don’t want to end up being stalked by supernatural paintings like Gyllenhaal and his Scooby-doo gang of privileged assholes.
Even though the dialogue is entirely unnatural and even cringe worthy at times, the words, characters, and story all make for something unique. Velvet Buzzsaw is a quirky little film, like a toddler hyped up on pixie sticks, or your weird aunt Zelda decked out in costume jewelry and a bedazzled hat. Gilroy presents a goofy Wes Anderson-style gallery of scares and laughter. Nothing ever seems quite right, in more ways than one. Velvet Buzzsaw requires the right sort of mood. If you’re not ready for an oddball horror flick rolling down a cliff and snowballing straight into a pit of who knows what, chances are, you won’t enjoy this film. Like most paintings, Velvet Buzzsaw can simultaneously be alluring with some fascinating imagery from cinematographer Robert Elswit, yet it can also be a vague, jumbled mess of confusion. In both good ways and bad, Velvet Buzzsaw never quite goes where you think it will.
Sometimes, it doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere. Velvet Buzzsaw has all sorts of potential with a story that is so different and strange, but again, the audience expectations and excitement are fun-blocked by tiresome characters who don’t often seem to be doing much of anything in the face of the evil haunting them. And when they show so little empathy towards the deaths that do occur, as well as towards each other, we as the audience begin to say fuck it, we might as well not care either.
High points in the film come from disturbing visuals and highly creative kills that are so close to being executed spectacularly, yet run out of paint. I don’t want to sell it short. Gilroy’s script is wildly inventive. Like a bag of rapid cats crazy. The ideas run rampant like a madman with a chainsaw in an art gallery, but for some reason, Gilroy never fully indulges in them. People are turned into paintings, murderous artwork comes to life, and there is never a shortage of a fun, new way for Gilroy to dispatch these pompous bastards. But, we can’t always have nice things, and outside of one glorious display of bloodshed involving a creepy sphere that only a damn fool would stick their arm into, all other deaths are done off screen, with only a hint at the true terror. This will disappoint horror fans for all of the obvious reasons, but it’s most frustrating for those of us who enjoyed Nightcrawler, and saw Gilroy’s potential for horror. Velvet Buzzsaw teases genuine terror over and over again, yet is continuously thwarted by other elements.
There is no doubt in my mind that Gilroy is an artistic visionary with just a few films under his belt. Velvet Buzzsaw has many flaws, most damning perhaps its pseudo made-for-TV vibe, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a unique film begging to be watched and experienced. It is. Just don’t expect the masterpiece we were all hoping for. We can’t expect artists to deliver the Mona Lisa on every outing. Sometimes, what we get is that black and white wall. It’s up to you to find out if there’s something there worth appreciating or not.
Velvet Buzzsaw is now streaming on Netflix.
By Matt Konopka