Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) is a mixed bag of great visuals, under-developed characters and Dan Gilroy’s ambition that needed more thought put into the execution.
Dan Gilroy, the director of Velvet Buzzsaw (2019), stunned the audiences back in 2014, with Nightcrawler. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo, this directorial debut of Gilroy invigilated the dark side of news reporters, in a powerful blend of thriller, drama and even drops of horror. I won’t cross any line by saying that Nightcrawler (2014) been a gripping, and even strangely titilating ride.
After the second feature entitled Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017) – a largely under-the-radar and disappointing drama – Dan Gilroy moved the area of horror. That’s how we arrive at Velvet Buzzsaw (2019), an always-in-between flick that is impossible to categorize, but often due to how confusing it is.
What is Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) about?
Paintings of an unknown artist Vetril Dease are retrieved after their owner mysteriously dies. Soon, these pieces of art become the hottest topic in the slimy world of contemporary art museums in Los Angeles. yet soon after the grand premiere of Dease’s works, people begin to go missing under very shady circumstances.
Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) loves its own artsy soul
On one hand, Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) is a satirical look at the world of contemporary art. Gilroy mocks its turgid nature, the nauseating sweet-talking, the ubiquitous manipulation and dozens of zeros on bank accounts of those involved.
On the other hand, it’s a story written by someone so obviously fascinated by art in all its diverse forms. Gilroy looks up to the Swedish The Square (2017), and even reaches for the same point of mocking the bohemian community. However, contrary to director’s Ruben Ostlund’s comedy, Gilroy sympathizes with the rebellious contemporary art on a much bigger scale. While Ostlund focused on the characters study, Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) puts art on the pedestal.
This obsession with art is generously reflected in Robert Elswit’s cinematography and the art direction in the film. The way the characters are dressed, along with all the settings they appear in, sketches and completes Gilroy’s visually addictive world. Gilroy’s vibrant taste for visuals isn’t, unfortunately, backed up neither by the script nor by the characters.
The thread binding all the characters in Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) is too thin
I’ll put it this way – Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) expects its audience to follow just too many people on the screen. This medley is very colorful, but Gilroy isn’t as much of a skilled writer when it comes to sketching multiple arches with actual goals in the story. What made Nightcrawler (2014) so riveting was the character study that deepened as the story unraveled. In Velvet Buzzsaw (2019), none of the parts of this variegated collection is given the same treatment.
It’s reflected in the lack of one single character we’re bound to follow. A “kind of” protagonist here is Morf (Jake Gyllenhaal), a highly influential art critic, who closely works with a ferociously ambitious museum director Rhodora (Rene Russo). An intersection for these two is Rhodora’s assistant (and Morf’s lover), Josephina (Zawe Ashton). She is the one who discovers the paintings by accident.
However, these three people constitute less than a half of characters that Gilroy’s aims to explore. At play are also Rhodora’s competition (Toni Collette and Tom Sturridge), artists (John Malkovich and Daveed Biggs) and even a handy plumber (Billy Magnussen), who serves as cannon fodder (however he’s still given more than one scene).
And as if keeping the promise to give a second to shine for each actor in this star-studded cast, Dan Gilroy attempts to combine all these people in one, coherent story. As a result, Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) gets messy, and often out of focus.
It gets even messier, when Gilroy jumps back and forth between a satire and a horror. It’s this division that the director seems particularly drawn to. The scary part of Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) stems from the paintings of Dease (as a painter myself, I admit these aren’t works of sheer brilliance), which unleash a strange kind of evil spirit. And, as evil spirits usually do in films, they like to torment humans.
Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) never embraces the full potential of its own creepiness
The idea of a demon that eradicates the self-centered, puffy and money-driven community is a to-the-point parallel of modern consumerism. And if that was the ultimate goal for Gilroy – to highlight the shallowness of art made for the sake of making art through horror – Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) would be a brilliant film. The haunted paintings, a work of a sociopath artist, convey a strong warning about seeking subliminal messages and imbuing art with them.
Because what if the author is a deranged mind, and his art is nothing but an extension of his darker side? I honestly loved this premise, and should Gilroy have explored it deeper, Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) would instantly occupy my top of 2019 list.
Lamentably, Gilroy directs with limits to his imagination. The movie’s dead from the neck up, as it delves too much into literal gore and avoids the more philosophical approach I described above. And sure, some of the horror elements are indeed creative (like Morf hearing voices in a cabin art installation), alas other leave you shrugging shoulders. Those gimmicks decentralize the attention of the audience, and prove that Dan Gilroy wasn’t sure that he really had gold on his plate with this concept. If that wasn’t stressed out enough, he did have it.
Even though Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) isn’t quite what I might have expected, by no means is it a bad movie. The cast oozes confidence, with Jake Gyllenhaal being in his elements and Rene Russo’s sharp, tough character as his counterweight. Marco Beltrami’s soundtrack masterfully fits, from jazzy lounge music to electronic, dark ambience.
I might feel unsure about Gilroy’s intentions, however he’s talented enough to glue you to the screen whatsoever. There’s just something missing – maybe the sheer brilliance that the director exposed in Nightcrawler (2014).
Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) – Culturally Loved or Hated?
Beaming at seems with creative ideas, this is a film which never arrives at its full, leaving the muddled plot take over the sheer fun resulting from those bonkers details and scares.
Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)
Hate Grade: 3.5/10
Director: Dan Gilroy
Writer: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Toni Collette, Rene Russo, John Malkovich
Music: Marco Beltrami & Buck Sanders
Cineamatography: Robert Elswit
Where to watch: Netflix
If you’re looking similar movies to Velvet Buzzsaw (2019), check out:
- The Square (2017) – a film about contemporary art too, but which offers more of a character-study approach, and no horror this time,
- Ai Weiwei (2012) – a documentary about a Chinese all-rebel artist and activist, which points to the way art is just the means to make statements and convey subliminal messages,
- Color Me Blood Red (1965) – an old school slasher where a painter uses human blood in the process of creating his valuable art pieces,
- The Devil’s Candy (2015) – a graffitis artist is possessed by evil forces which turn his art into gruesome visions, and twist his mind.