Velvet Buzzsaw is an odd film. It wears its oddness proudly, like a strategically chosen Versace blouse. As a follow-up to the deathly serious but otherwise empty Roman J. Israel Esq., it makes zero sense. Taken as a reunion of sorts for the stars of writer-director Dan Gilroy’s brilliant debut, Nightcrawler, though, it kind of fits. That film placed Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo in the grimy underworld of fame-hungry journos, following the bloody footprints to get that all-important scoop first. Velvet Buzzsaw steps back and lets them play around in the goo.
Here, Gyllenhaal is the ridiculously monikered art critic Morf Vandewalt, Russo his friend/client, the dealer Rhodora Haze. The two drift in and out of each other’s orbits as Rhodora exhibits various pieces and Morf judges them through oversized spectacles while making grand statements about the very nature of criticism (this a funny film to review, for sure). On the fringes are Toni Collette’s fellow dealer Gretchen, Tom Sturridge’s ludicrously accented schmoozer Jon Dondon (his name recalls Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, one assumes unintentionally) and John Malkovich’s struggling artist, Piers.
While the high-flyers are busy gabbing over champagne and shagging everything that moves (Morf’s bisexuality is, happily, presented without comment), ambitious underling Josephina (a grating Zawe Ashton) discovers a treasure trove of artworks left behind by a recently deceased tenant in her rundown apartment building. Spying an opportunity, she and Rhodora (who muscles her way in, naturally) option the pieces. The dead man’s stuff is wildly popular, but it carries with it a sinister secret and soon, members of the art elite are being picked off one by one.
Velvet Buzzsaw has, understandably, divided audiences and critics alike. Similar to Nicolas Winding Refn’s hyper-stylized Neon Demon, you’re either going to go along with this madness or stiffen up at the first instance of Sturridge’s bizarre accent (a hybrid of English, Aussie, South African, and, I think, German?) or Gyllenhaal’s wide-eyed histrionics and never recover. I went with it, allowing myself to be swept up in the wiggy, gory, and often quite silly carnage, enjoying the ride right up until the inevitably bonkers conclusion.
It helps that there’s an A+ cast being utilized to sell the movie’s madder moments. Watching Gyllenhaal and Russo interact once again is a joy, but the veteran actress’s sole scene with fellow powerhouse Collette is a real standout. It would’ve been nice to see a bit more of their professional relationship, in fact. Likewise, Ashton’s drippy P.A. might be a pain, but Stranger Things‘ Natalia Dyer is a delight opposite her, hiding behind big nerd glasses and a massive fringe, calculating yet sweet (a running joke sees her finding bodies, a la Bridget Fonda finding heads/falling out of the boat in Lake Placid).
Gilroy clearly knows this world well, and he ensures to both poke fun at and shower it with love in equal measure. The characters might be pretentious idiots, but they’re still likeable and funny enough that spending time with them isn’t a chore. And, when the bodies start falling, the speed and ease with which high-profile names are dispatched is impressive. Those who have viewed the brilliant trailer will know Collette runs afoul of an arm-swallowing installation piece, but the reality is much more horrible.
Velvet Buzzsaw‘s many art-based horrors are reliably stomach-churning, particularly as Gilroy doesn’t take pains to overly explain what’s actually happening — even as the intrepid Morf hilariously tries to play detective. He doesn’t lean into the paintings-coming-to-life motif as much as one might expect, but there are plenty of gruesome goings on to enjoy, all of which fit the general aesthetic quite nicely. Much like in Nightcrawler, the darkest moments are tactile, keenly felt, and bloodily executed.
This is also a very proud Los Angeles picture, the glamorous city’s underbelly cut open and left exposed. Even when Gilroy’s stylish characters are swanning around town discussing valuable works of art, he alludes to the gathering darkness in the background, keeping the audience aware of the encroaching danger while Morf, Rhodora, and the rest are left blissfully unaware. It makes sense they don’t realise something is wrong until it’s too late — they’re too self-involved to be scared.
Velvet Buzzsaw isn’t for everyone, clearly. There will be those who find its arch pronouncements and strange mood off-putting, even grating. But, taken purely as a slice of trashy, gory, and hilariously over the top horror with its tongue firmly in its cheek and a game cast elevating its insanity, this is bloody good fun.
WICKED RATING: 7/10
Director(s): Dan Gilroy
Writer(s): Dan Gilroy
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Collette, Tom Sturridge
Release: January 1, 2019 (Netflix)
Studio/ Production Co: Netflix
Length: 113 minutes