Shallow, rusty 'Velvet Buzzsaw' is borderline worthless
Half a decade later, the echoes of writer-director Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” still linger. Its depiction of success as a form of sinister persistence. The exploration of ruthless, competitive media operations and numb viewers. The Oscar-worthy, deeply unsettling performance by Jake Gyllenhaal. Chronicling a disturbed amateur video journalist’s ability to both capture and influence news in almost exclusively unethical ways, the film transcends obvious points about passive gawking at television violence to register something cracked about American society and its people.
The same really, really cannot be said of Gilroy’s “Velvet Buzzsaw,” in which Gilroy takes aim at even lower-hanging fruit: the greed and pretentiousness of the art world. Rather than filtering troubling material through an unforgettable character, the filmmaker sets up an even more feeble social examination than “Art School Confidential” (whose costar John Malkovich also plays a small role) and steers it toward horror modeled after “Final Destination.” It should go without saying, yet clearly Gilroy needs it repeated: To make a criticism of both art and art critics who complain about vision and originality that is itself so derivative and pointless is not meta but merely a vapid universe that collapses on itself as blood splatters like paint on a canvas.
Given far less to work with than he was in “Nightcrawler,” Gyllenhaal is uncharacteristically disposable as Morf Vandewalt, who has a name for a punchline but possesses considerable influence in the modern art community. His reviews matter in a manner that few critics’ do anymore, yet throughout “Velvet Buzzsaw” Gilroy communicates a cynicism toward there being any possibility to authentically evaluate subjective work. Morf complains about his role being “limiting and emotionally draining,” and he trashes one artist’s show simply because his girlfriend, Josephina (Zawe Ashton), wants him to harm the career of her ex-boyfriend. Unsurprisingly, when a man in her apartment building dies and leaves behind a massive haul of paintings he was trying to destroy, many are eager to capitalize, with integrity and rights not being of concern when legality can be so easily fudged. “The dumpster. Yeah, I remember now,” Josephina agrees after a lawyer informs her what her story will be moving forward as to where she found the pieces.
Because taking ownership of someone else’s property could drive the narrative in benign directions of something closer to “Woman in Gold,” Gilroy (who also made 2017’s mostly discarded Denzel Washington vehicle “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”) instead establishes a murderous backstory to the artist whose work is being exploited and proceeds to kill off all main characters who come in contact with the work. Not only does this elevate the basic premise to unexpected horror but it finds the director completely out of his element. He utilizes special effects to, for example, have monkeys in a painting come alive and yank Bryson (Billy Magnussen) into the art after he nearly dies in a fiery crash, or sever the arm of Gretchen (Toni Collette, wasted) as she is sucked into a piece called “Sphere” that is pretty much the Bean in Chicago’s Millennium Park but with holes and mysterious textures inside. “It’s about choice, desire, sex; the whole enchilada,” says gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo, Gilroy’s wife), in one of many lines meant to be ridiculous but still failing to hit a massive target. “Dee Made a Smut Film,” the 2016 episode of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” was funnier and made the same redundant points about self-satisfied appraisers and the slippery slope of letting demand determine value of a creative product. “Velvet Buzzsaw” also fails to improve on “Rudderless” in examining how the public responds to work after discovering that it was created by a monster.
In terms of so-called human relationships, little needs to be said about the romantic revolving door created here, as Morf and Josephina both follow artistic and sexual inspirations without ever earning the empathy they struggle to possess themselves. It also makes for an odd mix with Gilroy’s knockoff set pieces, hinging on a generic score and shots of creepy dolls. Perhaps the only laugh comes when Morf and Josephina attend a funeral and, so used to cutting everything down to size, Morf quips, “What is with that cheesy organ music? And that casket? What color is that, smog orange? Did they buy it on sale? Imagine having to spend an eternity in that.” This is a movie of unlikable people being obnoxious about high-priced material and suffering gruesome consequences, more so because of who the artist was and the haunted nature of the items than simply because people are trying to deceitfully profit from them. That people like Morf and Rhodora care not for the frustrated attendees lined up outside of an exclusive show in which a talking robot asks “Have you ever felt invisible?” is an irony that barely deserves to be called shrug-inducing.
There is one resonant idea, however. After Gretchen dies, security guards believe the dead body surrounded by blood is part of the exhibit and do not clean up before letting visitors in. Kids step in it and spread it around. This is a rather devastating notion, that art assessment can foster such detachment from reality and confused interpretation that people may lose all capacity to feel generous toward each other. That is far more worth getting upset about than a movie that feels exhausting before the body count even begins.
This review will be published in next year's edition of Magill's Cinema Annual. Click here to purchase copies of collections from previous years.