Directed by Dan Gilroy
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Zawe Ashton
Velvet Buzzsaw (now streaming on Netflix) is a cleverly apt title for writer-director Dan Gilroy’s latest skewering of Los Angeles. After trawling LA’s seedy underbelly in his powerful indictment of broadcast news’ relentless pursuit of ratings in 2014’s Nightcrawler, he returns with stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo to slice and dice the city’s slick world of commercial art in this bonkers combination of satire and the supernatural.
The film opens in the Miami Beach edition of Art Basel, an art fair that sells the works of established and emerging artists. The annual event is the perfect vehicle to introduce Gilroy’s cast of amoral characters, chief among them sexually fluid critic Morf Vandewalt (Gyllenhaal) and punk rocker-turned-gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Russo). The names Gilroy gives these characters are genius, and so are the florid lines he has them speak.
Morf: “I assess out of adoration! I further the realm I analyze!”
Rhodora, gesturing with her champagne flute to the Art Basel crowd: “All this? It’s just a safari to hunt the next new thing and eat it!”
Toni Collette as Gretchen, a former gallery curator turned rapacious art adviser, haranguing her former employer to make exhibition room for her rich client’s new purchases: “So move Banyo’s Horse Penis! Or the jeweled vagina! Put one inside the other for all I care!”
The action then shifts to the City of Angels, where Morf is evaluating his relationship with a hunky personal trainer as he makes the moves on Rhodora’s ambitious underling Josephina (Zawe Ashton), who comes across a trove of paintings in her recently deceased neighbor’s apartment. Josephina decides to appropriate them, despite explicit instructions from the mysterious painter to have them all destroyed. Morf’s effusive fascination with the pieces helps them become a sensation in the LA art scene. But as the buzz builds, so does the body count among the art-world denizens whose avarice brings them into the works’ orbit.
Velvet Buzzsaw is worlds away from Nightcrawler’s unrelenting grimness, but Gilroy still takes care to paint a convincingly ethics-challenged universe for his characters to get mired in. The wheeling and dealing take a particular toll on Morf, whose initial belief in his independence is shattered when he discovers that his reviews have been used to manipulate the value of artwork. Here, amidst his milieu’s painfully chic clothes and glamorous appointments, Gilroy delivers a cynical appraisement of privilege, and a huge part of the fun is watching these greedy characters get body parts amputated or get sucked into street art as the deaths become more elaborate and more outlandish.
Still, as original as the premise of Velvet Buzzsaw is, Gilroy can’t seem to avoid some of the conventions of the horror genre—specifically, the sleuthing that goes into explaining the gory goings-on, as well as characters merrily continuing about their business even as the eerie coincidences pile up. The script also makes room for characters like John Malkovich’s burnt out veteran painter, Daveed Diggs’ up-from-the-street artist, and Billy Magnussen’s bitter art installer. But none of their subplots goes anywhere, as though Gilroy toyed with the ideas they represented and then abandoned them mid-canvas. Gilroy isn’t shy, however, about showing a prodigious amount of skin from his young male actors, particularly Gyllenhaal, who explains his shredded physique by saying that he does Pilates and rides his Peloton. A critic who’s ripped? Now I really have seen everything.