Trawling through Film Twitter, it was a surprise to see one particular reviewer suggest they had been informed that Velvet Buzzsaw was a cross between The Neon Demon and Nocturnal Animals. That is lending Dan Gilroy’s picture more praise than, frankly, it deserves.
In some respects, they are all bedfellows, certainly when it comes to the visual juxtaposition of horror, sex and art. Gilroy’s film lacks, however, the operatic eeriness of Nocturnal Animals or the visually arresting palette of Nicolas Winding Refn’s (admittedly somewhat overhyped) The Neon Demon. What they all share is a critique of the world of art and performance, with Velvet Buzzsaw particularly taking a sideswipe at the critique of art critique itself. Gilroy isn’t unloading death wish fulfilment on the creators, rather those who profit from artistic creation; critics, gallery owners and agents, all more interested in fame and fortune than what the art means.
Velvet Buzzsaw in many respects has a formulaic core idea. A mysterious, reclusive artistic genius reaches from beyond the grave to exact a deadly supernatural vengeance against those who would abuse his work and his wishes. It’s a simple horror trope presented with a slight touch of H.P. Lovecraft by Gilroy here; Lovecraft’s stories almost always featured people completely out of their depth who are confronted by an evil or darkness they cannot possibly fathom, one which sends them spiralling into the depths of madness as a result. Those who survive the longest in Gilroy’s story begin suffering such a fate.
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The problem is that Velvet Buzzsaw at no point seems to understand what kind of film it either is, or wants to be. It begins as pure, overt satire, with Jake Gyllenhaal’s Morf (though you’ll spend the entire film when people say that if you’re British thinking of Tony Hart’s Morph…) navigating the powerfully facile art world ruled by art gallery owner Rhodora (Rene Russo, who like Gyllenhaal appeared in Gilroy’s previous, and much stronger, film Nightcrawler), while battling the frisson between he and art agent Josephina (Zawe Ashton) which is confusing his sexuality. It is intentionally camp, filled with ludicrous exhibits and gaudy, vacuous artistic statements.
Once the creeping horror aspect emerges, when Josephina uncovers the work of deceased artist Vetril Dease and calculatingly appropriates it for she and Rhodora’s own, Gilroy steadily begins to change tack and edge the film closer to the weird, reality-morphing horror you might see from a David Lynch, fused with those Lovecraftian or perhaps Stephen King touches. Velvet Buzzsaw attempts to make an artistic statement with this right turn between genres, suggesting the art itself is reaching out and manifesting into a dark form to exact punishment on those who would be corrupted by the impurity of artistic expression. The subtext is not hard to unpick.
Why, therefore, it all seems so aimless, not to mention toothless, is one of the strangest things about Gilroy’s film. Gyllenhaal steadily descending into his own abyss is entertaining to watch but given Morf is supposed to be a legendary, feared art critic—a Kenneth Tynan of the modern, abstract art world—there is never the caustic bite and viciousness you would expect from such a character, mainly because it never seems to be on the page. Morf is not likeable enough to care about when he begins to realise what is happening, nor is he vile enough to hate. Most of the characters are repulsive human beings who deserve their comeuppance, but watching those deaths come to bear with almost a Final Destination-style inevitability is not nearly as fun as it should be.
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Something got lost between the page and screen with Velvet Buzzsaw, you can’t help but sense. Gilroy suggested he wants to evoke Robert Altman’s The Player with an ensemble feel of characters but then particularly John Malkovich’s Piers, a ‘genius’ artist suffering from a creative dearth, are forgotten about halfway through. The tonal genre shifts of the piece dial down the satire and cause the film to lose any sense of nastiness, while the horror and suspense are so lacking that when the blood and gore does arrive, or some of the genuinely inventive deaths occur, there is an absence of either shock or fear.
It doesn’t work, is the long and short of it. Velvet Buzzsaw gets lost on the journey in the way Gilroy’s best work, such as Nightcrawler, never do. If this had both sharpened the edges and vicious bite of the characters and their awful world, and worked on integrating the visual and metaphorical horror into the narrative with greater skill, Gilroy could well have pulled off a blend of quirky, weird and creepy cinema that would have stood out as something delightfully and uniquely bizarre.
This doesn’t happen and in the end, honestly, Velvet Buzzsaw just is never weird or bizarre enough.
Velvet Buzzsaw is now available on Netflix.