Release Date: February 1, 2019 (Netflix)
Director: Dan Gilroy
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 112 Minutes
Dan Gilroy’s satirical Velvet Buzzsaw injects a heaping dose of bloody horror into the pretentious consumerism of the art world, centering on a cast of cartoonish narcissists as victims of the very pieces they draw profit from.
Jake Gyllenhaal shines in one of his most bonkers roles yet as Morf Vandewalt (certainly the best character name of 2019), a famous art critic tired of the same old stuff, discontent in his relationship and longing for something to truly blow his find. Endlessly quotable, Gyllenhaal’s performance is nothing if not memorable, channeling another fantastic weirdo role akin to his Johnny Wilcox character in 2017’s Okja.
Morf’s life is given new meaning, however, when an associate of gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), Josephina (Zawe Ashton), discovers a treasure trove of mysterious paintings that were created by her reclusive upstairs neighbor, who recently passed away. The pieces have a strangely hypnotic quality, instantly transfixing all those who gaze upon them, which, in addition to the mysterious background of the artist, make them a hot commodity in L.A.’s high-class art scene.
Gallery owners, museums and dealers are all fighting for a piece of the deceased man’s work, despite his explicit instructions to destroy the paintings all upon his death. What we quickly discover is that there is a far more nefarious entity at play here, one that will seek to end all those that aim to profit from the artist’s work.
Gilroy gleefully adds a heavy layer of camp, ensuring that no one takes anything in the film too seriously, especially when monkeys begin pulling people into paintings and silly giant orbs start turning human appendages into liquid. Like many great pieces of satire, it’s not something that will appeal to everyone, but I found the juxtaposition between the pseudo-intellectual art snobs and the senseless over-the-top gore to be an extremely fun watch, although it’s about as dense as some of the ridiculous installations featured.
There a clear distinction made between the artists and those who profit from other peoples’ art, essentially claiming it as their own, with John Malkovich and Daveed Diggs playing artists showing their pieces in Haze’s gallery. The haunted paintings have a very different effect on these two compared to those who view the paintings as a commodity, rather than a piece of the artist’s soul.
Gilroy has said, “I want this movie to do for the art world what Jaws did for swimming,” and though I’m not sure Velvet Buzzsaw will keep people out of galleries, maybe it will make them think a bit more about the artist who created the pieces that they’re considering buying for their conservatory or wherever else rich people hang paintings.