In a recent Twitter post documentarian Michael Moore thanked Netflix for funding and releasing films that would otherwise have remained in a vault somewhere. This leads to beautiful gems like Roma and Mudbound, but it also allows a space for more unorthodox entries.
Velvet Buzzsaw is a story about the modern art world. Set in contemporary Los Angeles, we follow an ensemble of characters ranging from Morf (Jake Gyllenhaal) a snobbish art critic, to Rhodora (Rene Russo) a ruthless art dealer, and to cameos by John Malkovich and Daveed Diggs as artists themselves. The story picks up when a trove of art is found in a dead man’s house. His paintings are impressive and his request to have them destroyed upon his death is ignored.
The film takes on a quirky horror vibe that never fully germinates. There are certain supernatural elements that would have been terrifying enough if the entire film had been compressed into a single art gallery. The film is directed and written by Dan Gilroy of Nightcrawler fame, and he claims his inspiration came when he was walking around an empty gallery and was terrified by the art installations. If this had been constrained by a lower budget, perhaps it would have been a single-location film that would have allowed its critique of the art world and intensity of emotions to culminate. Instead Gilroy scatters his story and messages so that it feels more like his previous film Roman J. Israel Esq. that couldn’t quite decide what it wanted to be and say.
The clear intention of the film is to criticize the commercialization of art, and it might not only be paintings and sculptures, but to the film world itself. Gilroy has worked on blockbusters such as Bourne Legacy and Kong: Skull Islandas a writer, and therefore has an inside view into how that particular world is being exploited. However, his metaphors and filmic analogies trying to explain the corruption of art through money, don’t fully come across unless you’re looking for that message particularly.
Thus the message of greed in Velvet Buzzsaw is completely lost to most viewers. The horror aspect never fully culminates, mostly because it clashes with the quirkier tone typical of Gilroy. The actors seem to have a lot of fun, but the lack of a proper impact makes this bizarre film fade away as the credits begin to roll. It’s is certainly admirable that Netflix is willing to give finance to such outlandish ideas; every once in a while one will land, but there will undoubtedly be misses like this film as well.