Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) by Dan Gilroy
Review by Reid Ramsey
Dan Gilroy wants to defy your expectations. With his directorial debut, Nightcrawler (2014), being a critical and commercial hit five years ago, Gilroy asked audiences to reconsider the shock value of T.V. news as Rene Russo’s character callously explains her mantra: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Nightcrawler is a thoughtful, but grotesque film in which we watch the lead character stage crimes for the sake of ratings. Gilroy followed his debut by taking a left-turn with Roman J. Israel, esq., a film that did little more than earn Denzel his eighth Oscar nomination. Velvet Buzzsaw, the third feature film from Gilroy, returns to him craving the grotesque with the horrific L.A. art scene, but is, from a genre perspective, a quietly revolutionary horror film in its reckless desire to be only a horror film.
For the past decade —maybe less— critics and audiences have latched onto the term “elevated horror” to describe some horror movies. The gist is that these are horror movies that adults shouldn’t feel bad for liking because not only do people die, but the movie is thoughtful and has something to say, too! It’s mostly used to neglect and dismiss all other horror movies as thoughtless bloodbaths. The early movies to don this moniker have unfortunately had a hard time shaking it; sure, It Follows is about STDs, but it is slasher fanfic down to its glorious core. The more recent movies to take on this name have done so in a more obnoxious, auteur-serving way.
Last year when Ari Aster released his film Hereditary to widespread critical acclaim, he stated in an interview, “I guess my feeling is that I very rarely see a [horror] film that has greater ambitions than to just put the audience on a 90-minute roller coaster. I’m always so excited when I find a film that does have greater ambitions.” He also describes being careful to not call his own film “a horror film,” a, likely unintentional, slight towards the genre as a whole and the very creators who served as his inspiration for Hereditary.
So with all the insufferable elevated horror movies released these days, the trailer for Velvet Buzzsaw had me extremely apprehensive. The film follows a revered fine art critic, an artist manager and her assistant, and a museum curator turned dealer, as they discover the revolutionary art of a dead, unknown man. The paintings begin haunting every character they come in contact with, and Gilroy’s film begins to feel much less like a commentary on art and much more like a riff on John Carpenter’s Christine (1983).
When Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) walks into a new gallery, everyone notices. His review of the new pieces debuting there will likely decide the success of every featured artist. Even more, he will single-handedly be able to apply the monetary value to these artists that he would like. In this art-world, the critic is God. Morf, though, is incredibly fallible. Gilroy shows the cracks in his veneer early as he writes a negative review of his girlfriend’s ex’s gallery opening purely out of spite.
Josephina (Zawe Ashton), who first found the dead artist’s paintings, just wants to make a name for herself as an artist manager. As the stakes get higher, though, and people start dying, Josephina’s cracks also start to show. The characters not only start to reveal their flaws to each other as the value of these paintings skyrocket, they also start to reveal their flaws to themselves. The dolled-up, Hollywood exteriors begin to shift and break from their carefully-curated frames as the characters reach outside of themselves in an insatiable greed for money and notoriety. It’s gluttonous and greedy living in the finest, and their sins always catch up with them.
Velvet Buzzsaw is stylistically excellent. Gyllenhaal’s bizarre performance is accompanied by an ice-cold Rene Russo, an “is she trying to be Frances McDormand?” Toni Collette, and straight performances from Daveed Diggs and John Malkovich as the main artists. The tone of the performances is matched completely by the shiny, ultra-digital cinematography by Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood), whose uncomplicated images serve as the perfect antidote for Gilroy’s over-written script.
Through Velvet Buzzsaw’s shiny exterior, though, the cracks begin to surface as it becomes increasingly apparent that this is nothing more than a horror film. Adjacent to the discussions of art and the artist, the movie is filled with pools of blood and subjects coming out of paintings to consume their voyeurs. It’s hard to wonder what the movie has to say about the art-world when a woman’s arm is ripped off by a typical art installation. Upon reflection, what first appeared to be a self-congratulatory commentary on art reveals itself to simply be a five dollar gore-fest; and the movie is all the better for this reason.