This Just Won’t Cut It
Velvet Buzzsaw is a movie I wanted to like – to love, even. The last time Dan Gilroy and Jake Gyllenhaal teamed up we got 2014’s excellent Nightcrawler, and given the gonzo premise of their new collaboration, I thought I was in for a good time. But the Netflix movie curse spares few; even up-and-coming directors and A-list actors cannot escape its grasp. The streaming service’s marketing would have you believe Velvet Buzzsaw is first and foremost a horror film, but the truth is the horror is an afterthought. So is everything else in the movie.
Gyllenhaal plays the preposterously named Morf Vandewalt, a top art critic in the LA scene. His friend Josephina (Zawe Ashton), an assistant to ruthless gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), is desperate to make it in the art world. One night, Josephina discovers the body of her co-tenant Vetril Dease, who has left behind thousands of disturbing and affecting artworks. Josephina takes a few pieces for herself, and after showing them to Morf and Rhodora, decides to display them in Rhodora’s gallery. After fudging the truth of how Josephina found the paintings, the trio reaps the benefits of the art’s sudden popularity: money for Rhodora, a book deal for Morf, and status for Josephina. But the paintings – and their artist – harbor a dark secret, and soon their admirers start dying in mysterious ways.
On its surface, it’s an interesting setup – mind you, the basic plot construction of “person stumbles upon object(s) that turn out to be haunted” isn’t exactly groundbreaking. But Velvet Buzzsaw feels fresh because of its niche setting: how many horror movies can you think of that spend most of their time in galleries and art exhibits? Where it fails is the execution: thanks to a half-baked script, the movie never makes the most of its intriguing premise.
After some perfectly fine stage-setting, Velvet Buzzsaw quickly becomes unfocused. It’s never sure of who its protagonist is, with Morf and Josephina each filling the role depending on the scene. And because the two spend large stretches of the movie apart, it feels like the audience is being pulled in two directions. It’s possible to make the dual protagonist conceit work, but it requires far more balance and style than this movie can give. The secondary characters mainly serve as cannon fodder, but some don’t even get that distinction. John Malkovich shows up early on as a washed-up artist, but he’s dropped halfway through the movie after having had zero bearing on the plot. Why cast such a talented actor in such a nothing role? Why write the part in the first place?
But horror movies aren’t known for their strong character work, and perhaps such lapses would be forgivable if Velvet Buzzsaw delivered the scares. No such luck, I’m afraid. Marrying horror and comedy is always a tricky proposal, but Velvet Buzzsaw seems barely interested in trying. The various deaths – especially those in the second half – are often the screenplay’s only source of narrative momentum, so it’s baffling how prosaic they turn out to be. The movie’s heightened tone begs for these scenes to be high-energy set-pieces, but with one exception, they’re rushed and forgettable. A Roth, or even a Zombie, would have wrung more thrills out of these sequences; at least piling on gore would have been something.
It falls on the comedy, then, to pull the movie’s weight, but it’s woefully unequipped for the job. The swipes at the art world are too broad and obvious to pack any bite: critics are pretentious! Modern art is meaningless drivel! It’s possible to mine humor from these well-worn sources, and Velvet Buzzsaw does get a few laughs, but it runs out of cards to play before the end of the first act, leaving it doomed to repeat itself for the remainder of its running time.
On top of all this, Velvet Buzzsaw succumbs to the dreaded Neflix syndrome. Despite its big-boy budget and established talent, it still feels a little smaller, a little cheaper, than its theatrical counterparts. This is never more evident than during the scenes with CGI, most of which are decidedly second-rate. Compositions are competent but bland, lacking the flair cinematographer Robert Elswit brought to Nightcrawler.
The tragedy of Velvet Buzzsaw is that with some major adjustments, it could have been good. It contains fleeting sparks of inspiration, including a fun, bold performance from Gyllenhaal. If it wasn’t so bloated, if it blended comedy and horror more effectively, if it cut the pointless relationship subplot, if it didn’t waste talent, it could have really been something. In other words, it would be great if it wasn’t so awful. Not the most constructive criticism, I know, but at least it fits the subject.