A high end Los Angeles art gallery exhibits works of art that turn out to be haunted by a vengeful spirit in Velvet Buzzsaw. Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo) is a former punk rocker, who now runs one of the most high end art galleries in Los Angeles, with her always respecting the opinion of art critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal). One day, Haze’s assistant Josephina (Zawe Ashton) discovers that her neighbour Vetril Dease has suddenly died and left countless paintings in his apartment. Seeing an opportunity to elevate her career, Josephina partners with Haze to exhibit and sell the paintings, while Vandewalt is given the exclusive right to write a biography on Dease. However, it isn’t long before those who come into contact with Dease’s painting are targeted by a deadly vengeful spirit.
Writer/director Dan Gilroy reunites with the leads from his 2014 debut Nightcrawler with the satirical horror film Velvet Buzzsaw. The film takes place under the backdrop of the very pretentious contemporary art world, where the worth of the pieces are set by how well they are reviewed and how much they sell for. This world includes a wide variety of eccentric characters, such as museum curator Gretchen (Toni Collette), abstract artist Piers (John Malkovich), and rival gallery owner Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge). However, this world is turned upside down by the discovery of artwork by reclusive artist Vetril Dease. Despite being aware of Dease’s desire that the artwork be destroyed, Josephina ends up taking the art, which soon becomes a huge hit. However, while researching for his book on Dease, Morf Vandewalt discovers the artist’s dark history and he begins to notice movement within the paintings.
I was a pretty big fan of Nightcrawler, so I was excited to see Dan Gilroy reunite with Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo for Velvet Buzzsaw, the name of which is in reference to the punk band Rhodora Haze was part of in her early days, with her having the logo tattooed on the back of her neck. The film does start off on a high note, with an excellently constructed oil painted opening credits sequence. However, things quickly go downhill from there, as the film turns out to be a very messy, both figuratively and literally, mix of contemporary art world satire and supernatural horror film that eventually collapses under the weight of its own pretentiousness.
The three lead characters of Velvet Buzzsaw are generally horrible human beings and part of the satire of the film comes from how they are profiting from a reclusive artist’s psychological torment and are now paying the price. The film does feature some well constructed and gory horror set pieces, though they somewhat feel tacked onto the film. Then there is a recurring gag that develops in the film featuring Stranger Things‘ Natalia Dyer as the meekish assistant Coco, who always seems to be the one to discover the bodies of the vengeful spirit’s victims.
I would be tempted to call Velvet Buzzsaw as sophomore slump for Dan Gilroy, though that arguably already happened with 2017’s Roman J. Israel, Esq. Instead, I will just say that the film is a misstep for the filmmaker that can’t quite find the right mix of contemporary art world satire and supernatural horror.
Velvet Buzzsaw is now available for streaming on Netflix