SYNOPSIS: A feared critic, an icy gallery owner and an ambitious assistant snap up a recently deceased artist's stash of paintings -- with dire consequences.
2014’s ‘Nightcrawler’ saw director-writer Dan Gilroy and leading actor Jake Gyllenhaal forge a electrifying dynamic through a satire on modern-day journalism, and it is no surprise therefore that Gilroy and Gyllenhaal have decided to continue their creative collaboration with an equally satirical piece. This time, both have trained their sights on the contemporary art scene, taking the opportunity to skewer its pretentious denizens while taking the perennial tension between art and commerce to violent heights. And oh, while we are on collaborations, we might add too that Gilroy’s spouse Rene Russo is also in both movies.
Right from the start, Gilroy sets out the ‘types’ he intends to lampoon. There is the pompous ‘art critic’ that is exemplified by Gyllenhaal’s Morf Vandewalt, who relishes and cherishes the power of his reviews in elevating and ending careers. There is the power gallery owner that is personified by Russo’s Rhodora Haze, who has no qualms manipulating those around her to her selfish advantage. There is the greedy museum curator in Toni Collette’s Gretchen, who decides to turn to advising millionaire clients and runs around town trying to convince others that she is running the place. There is the has-been artist in John Malkovich’s Piers, who is struggling to find his next big hit, as well as the up-and-coming complement in Daveed Diggs’ Damrish, who is determined not to become like Piers.
Watching them dance, slither and hiss around one another at the Art Basel in Miami is a gleeful delight, although it does take some getting used to their lingo. But Gilroy has far more devilish designs on these characters, revolving around the spirit of a mentally anguished painter named Ventril Dease which still haunts his artwork. Rhodora’s assistant Josephina (Zawe Ashton) finds Dease’s body in the hallway of her apartment building, and following a cat into his unlocked home, finds the trove of ghoulish paintings which prove so original, disturbing and mesmerising that just about anyone who regards them is instantly transfixed.
Sensing an opportunity to get rich and get famous, Josephina ignores the words of the Dease’s caretaker, who had told her that the artist wanted his work destroyed. Unfortunately for Josephina and everyone else lucky enough to profit from his art, Dease’s hatred and ill-will accumulated from years of abuse and violence have somehow been preserved in his paintings, and one by one, comes to haunt those who seek to profit from them. Be warned – each one of these kills is pretty gory, perhaps even more so than the typical horror movie, and Gilroy leans heavy on horror tropes to build up the sense of foreboding before each death.
Whether you enjoy the second and third acts of ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’ depends on how much you want to see these self-absorbed, egoistical types meet their end at the hands of a vengeful artist looking for comeuppance on those who have turned his creations into commodities. It isn’t difficult to guess who Dease chooses to kill first, but as predictable as that may be, Gilroy uses each of these occasions to emphasise just how these characters continue to pursue their own agendas with little regard for anyone else, even as these others seem to be dying or meeting unnatural ends in uncanny ways.
Frankly, Gilroy’s satire loses its bite as it becomes more and more a full-blown horror/ gore movie, even as his setting (i.e. within the art world) proves intriguing. One late sequence has an already freaked-out Morf hearing voices from inside his head while enclosed in a sound exhibit that supposedly contains whale intonations recorded 20,000 feet under the sea in the Mariana trench. Another has Gretchen’s lifeless and severed body being mistaken for an exhibit by visitors at the gallery until her own assistant sees her and realises just what happened. Oh yes, like we said, you’ve got to have a somewhat twisted sense of humour to enjoy these subsequent scenes.
Thankfully, Gilroy’s passion for his ideas is matched by Gyllenhaal’s committed lead performance, evolving from an unplaceably accented, hyperarticulate obsessive into a troubled, even tormented soul questioning everything from his work to his romantic choices over the course of the film. And we dare say that it is Gyllenhaal who holds the film together, finding genuine sympathy in someone who is forced to re-discover his sense of self as well as his view of the world around him. Though Gyllenhaal won’t be winning any awards this time round, it is impressive how he gives shape to Gilroy’s creative impulses. So while ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’ is no ‘Nightcrawler’, it still proves a fascinating enough watch – after all, this is arthouse horror, in the most literal sense of the word. .
Review by Gabriel Chong