As I was browsing my YouTube subscriptions one day, I stumbled across a Netflix trailer for a new film called Velvet Buzzsaw. It didn’t catch my attention at first, outside of the staring face of Jake Gyllenhaal, until I looked up the people behind it. As it turns out, Dan Gilroy (the writer and director) was also behind Nightcrawler, one of my favorite movies of 2014. This made me reflect on just how good that film was. Nightcrawler featured one of Jake Gyllenhaal’s best performances, and told a fascinating, haunting story about what happens when journalism becomes corrupted by consumer culture. Essentially, it’s a critique of the capitalist practices that force journalism to become more sensationalist and reactionary, instead of objective and factual, which is...relevant, considering the state of modern journalism. Unlike most critiques, though, it does not depict a normal, happy guy that becomes corrupted by the system, and then strives to fix it. Instead, it shows a guy who, despite being a sociopath, successfully climbs up the ranks of a small television broadcast network, to the point that he begins fabricating his own stories (which actually gets people hurt and killed), and gets praise for it. This makes you question how broken a system must be for that to actually happen, and makes the film all the more powerful and thought-provoking. It’s a great film, please check it out.
Needless to say, Gilroy’s excellence in Nightcrawler got me interested enough in Velvet Buzzsaw. I decided to watch the trailer, during which I realized the film was a critique of the relationship between art and commerce, and a horror movie. This got me excited; I was curious to see how Gilroy would bring out the ugliness of the art world, and possibly scare me as he did it. Unfortunately, my curiosity was quickly replaced by disappointment once I finished the film, as I had been presented with the most basic, predictable version of that story one could ever imagine. For as flashy as the visuals were, and how interesting the art was, and how genuinely the characters acted and sounded, and even for how goofy the eventual slasher kills became, I feel like I’ve seen this story a thousand times; people are involved in a corrupt system, find some creepy but beautiful art pieces from a dead artist, and then sell them to the general public, only for the art to literally retaliate. This was rather disappointing, because it felt like a step down from Nightcrawler’s more ambitious narrative; Velvet Buzzsaw, by comparison, plays everything much safer. Instead of crafting characters that are fascinating because of how degraded their sense of morality is, and exploring how that relates to a corrupt system, the film opted to simply make characters, who are otherwise good people, get corrupted by said system, resulting in a much more well-tread and uninteresting experience.
Furthermore, even though the performances were rather good, there were far too many characters. It seemed to follow a slasher movie template - in that, some characters have to be killed off early. However, the template was ill-suited for this film. Every character speaks like a high-society art specialist, which doesn’t leave much room for the simple characterization or development required of a typical slasher film. I understand that this is the point - they’re too caught up in the art world to be reasonably down-to-earth or relatable - but that doesn’t change the fact that I barely cared about them and found their endless babbling about art boring at best, and gratingly irritating at worst. The first half was almost excruciating to watch because of this, as the conversations began turning into incomprehensible white noise for me.
It also doesn’t help that there is no real protagonist, which makes the plot and implied character arcs feel extremely rushed. The only one who really pulled off a standout performance was Jake Gyllenhaal, as Morf Vanderwalt. Gyllenhaal nails the mannerisms and thoughts of an off-kilter, but passionate, articulate art critic. He seems to be the only character who actually cares about the quality of art. I also liked how his passion was twisted and manipulated by others with less noble intentions. This natural character flaw is what ultimately gets him wrapped up in the corrupt going-ons of the art world, making him more of a tragic figure. The same goes for Josephina (Zawe Ashton). She was a good, complicated, and morally ambiguous character that showed the dangers of ambition, particularly how the need to succeed monetarily can blind someone to what’s right, and persuade them to make otherwise irrational decisions. She didn’t get nearly enough screen time, though, and neither did Gyllenhaal’s character, for that matter. That came off as strange to me, because they did much more to critique the disjointed relationship between art and commerce than the horror elements did.
Speaking of, who would’ve thought that paintings and art pieces coming to life and killing off the characters would be so...underwhelming? It sounds like a B-movie horror premise that this B-movie art thriller took and tried to jam into the last half. Nothing in the first half implied a creepy atmosphere, or even set up anything in a satisfying manner. For instance, there’s a silver ball you stick your hand into as an exhibit. It’s so irrelevant that, when it pops up again and kills off a character, you kind of just sit there and think, “Oh, I guess that was foreshadowing.” Another character is bothered by a robot-like piece for ten seconds. Guess what kills them? Yet another character has a very weird buzzsaw tattoo that also features the title of the movie, which...kills them. The payoff for that setup is particularly awful. After all the other characters die, you think everything’s going to be okay, but then the camera pans so, so slowly over to the back of their neck, where the tattoo is, and you realize about fifteen seconds beforehand how they’re going to die. As I was watching it, the words “the buzzsaw will kill them” ran through my head at least ten times, yet the film treated it like a huge reveal! Wow, who would’ve guessed that a tattoo that looked like a buzzsaw, and had the words Velvet Buzzsaw etched into the design, would kill off the character it was conspicuously placed on in a movie where art pieces kill people!? For a film that tosses around a lot of complicated art terminology, it has no confidence in the audience’s brain capacity, apparently.
Overall, as someone who loves movies, fine art, horror, Jake Gyllenhaal, and films that navigate the line between art and commerce, Velvet Buzzsaw really disappointed me. It conveys a basic message through barely-defined characters (outside of two really compelling performances) and underwhelming horror elements. It lacked the subtle, disturbing nature of Nightcrawler, but wasn’t goofy enough to compensate for that. I’d skip it, unless you’re a die-hard Jake Gyllenhaal fan.