Velvet Buzzsaw could have been so much more. Written and directed by Dan Gilroy and focussing on the art world, the trailer promised satire, thrills, supernatural goings on, and potentially great performances by the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Collette, and John Malkovich. Unfortunately, the end result is far from satirical or thrilling, yes there’s a supernatural element to the story but it’s in no way chilling or unnerving and the performances, considering the talent involved, are also average. Dan Gilroy also wrote and directed Nightcrawler and Roman J. Israel, Esq., both of which had something to say about the world in which they were set, and whether it was about the state of the news or selling out, they both contained enough commentary to be entertaining whilst being able to spark debate. The art world is in some ways as fake as both mainstream news and the law, it’s also as pretentious as the fashion industry but with added elitism and classism, there was therefore potentially lots to say here. Velvet Buzzsaw exposes none of this, instead we have a strangely mediocre movie that plods around without exciting the viewer. Watching Buzzsaw was not only a bland and dull experience, it also felt like a chore to me. It was the filmic equivalent of wandering around the Tate Modern with your dad or getting lost in Ikea.
I’ll point out that modern art has been criticised since its inception, its nothing new to liken it to a pile of trash or to say the public couldn’t tell the difference between a corpse and an actual art installation (both of which are included in the film). Velvet Buzzsaw therefore has nothing new to say, and with the rest of the plot being a mish-mash of 1970s horror anthologies and 1980s B-movies, there’s literally no reason to watch it. If you want a satisfying supernatural tale about an artist, just watch The Vault Of Horror, specifically the final story (“Drawn And Quartered”) starring Tom Baker. If you want a brilliant comment about art critics, just watch the opening scene of “Disembodied Hand” (Christopher Lee’s story in Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors). If you want a decent satire about modern art, simply watch Tony Hancock’s The Rebel and if you want to see the concept of a living painting, this was done much better (and eerier) in The Witches. Basically, what I’m saying is there’s so many superior films tackling the concepts allegedly handled by Velvet Buzzsaw and all of them are preferable to sitting down and watching this disappointment. You could argue that the ending of Buzzsaw at least tries to say something about a once credible artist now old and uninspired, surrounded by money but unable to create anything new but by that point you couldn’t give a toss (unless you take it as a metaphor for Gilroy’s career).
Since the storyline is an amalgam of better films, the main thing that Gilroy needed to get right with a movie concerned with fine art is the artwork itself. Films ranging from Scanners to Body Parts contained interesting and believable art. Unfortunately, the art in Velvet Buzzsaw is very much like a high school end of year show. Gilroy’s depiction of contemporary art, specifically the “groundbreaking” Ventril Dease pieces is like that of an A-Level student. And similarly, if you’re going to show pompous, chi-chi types, it’s best not to dress everybody like they were given ASOS gift vouchers. Unless the Los Angeles art scene is completely different to the New York or London counterparts (and I doubt it is) this was in no way indicative of the pretentious nature of modern art and modern artists, not to mention the parasitic agents and money-hungry gallery owners, auctioneers and buyers.
The cast, similar to the plot outline, also seems very promising but again, the end result is less than satisfying. Unless you want to see Jake Gyllanhaal in the nuddy doing a caricatured camp accent and shouting a bit, don’t bother expecting too much from the actors involved. With Rene Russo unconvincingly playing an ex-Punk art dealer, Daveed Diggs playing the corniest-looking artist in all of Cali, and Natalia Dyer playing the only frigging assistant in all of L.A., the characters are very much unconvincing. With Zawe Ashton looking like a lanky possessed-Regan from The Exorcist and Tom Sturridge looking less like an art-agent-cum-gallery-owner and more like the taxi driver in Red Hot Chili Pepper’s “By The Way” music video, the actors and their portrayals aren’t exactly believable. It’s not like the characters are so heightened and ridiculous that they’re cartoonish (which could have been a stylistic comment in itself) instead the overall look is generally bland and the acting, directing, and writing comes off as amateur. Even the great Toni Collette can’t save this from being a mediocre offering from Netflix; another damp squib promising everything but delivering nothing. Netflix I’ll add, has a tendency to shoot the first draft of any script they receive (at least that’s how it seems to an outsider) and although they’re generally good value for money, the company seem to be in a mad rush to get films made rather than making honed, focussed pieces that will stand the test of time (l will acknowledge that they’re miles better than Sky Cinema Original Films).
Getting Dan Gilroy and half the cast of Nightcrawler on paper sounded fantastic, a film about the art world sounded even better, but the end result is so substandard that it’s hardly worth the wear and tear on your sofa and TV. On the topic of the film’s central theme – art – modern art has put the “more” into Henry Moore and the “bank” into Banksy, but Velvet Buzzsaw makes zero comment on the capitalistic, consumerist shit-fest that contemporary art is. And that’s not the only problem; this film is for some reason described as a “horror” but there’s nothing scary about it (although it is horrific to watch). Velvet Buzzsaw is less Damien in The Omen and more Damien Hirst and by that I mean a lame piece of overblown crap created to make profit rather than to entice and enthral. And while I’m at it, in an M. Night Shyamalan-esque way, if Dan Gilroy was planning to satirise and mock critics à la The Lady In The Water, it probably wasn’t such a good idea to create a piece of art so derivative and easy to critique.
A Total Buzzkill.