Truman Roberti reviews Velvet Buzzsaw, a disappointing horror-satire.
Velvet Buzzsaw is Nightcrawler writer/director Dan Gilroy’s latest attempt, pairing him again with Jake Gyllenhaal, Renee Russo, producer Jennifer Fox, cinematographer Robert Elswit, and editor John Gilroy, all of whom worked with him previously on Nightcrawler. Joining that group are the acting talents of Toni Collette, Natalia Dyer, Daveed Diggs, and John Malkovich. In Velvet Buzzsaw, a group of art-world denizens stumble across a dead man’s vast collection of art and sell them to achieve massive commercial success – but the paintings are cursed and begin killing off people who profited from their sale. On paper, this film looks great, which makes the baffling, absurd, unfocused mess it winds up as all the more disappointing. Velvet Buzzsaw starts out as a cynical critique of the world of visual art and the vapid pretension it exudes, but gradually devolves into a dumb, generic horror movie that throws all attempts at tension and logic out the window. If Nightcrawler turned over the rock of an industry to examine the human bugs crawling underneath, Velvet Buzzsaw is like smashing an anthill and smugly expecting some kind of emotional response to come from hitting such an easy target.
Conceptually, Velvet Buzzsaw’s blending of horror and social critique isn’t inherently flawed. Shallow, loathsome characters who exist only to be killed in horrible fashion are a mainstay of the horror genre, and when those characters embody real-world obnoxious art critics and self-absorbed gallery owners, the potential for some cathartic death scenes seems pretty apparent. I’ll get behind taking jabs at Instagram obsessed narcissists any day of the week, but Gilroy’s approach is clumsy and out of touch, coming across like an embarrassing rant from a Baby-Boomer who doesn’t quite grasp the world he’s taking pot shots at. Case in point: the painter who created the haunted art is named “Dease”, pronounced like “deez”. As the central menace of the film, his name comes up a lot, and literally every time someone says his name, I’m gripped by the impulse to shout “Dease Nuts” at the screen. This is a way bigger issue than it seems. It’s hard to take a film seriously or feel any suspense when its antagonist is named after a 4-year-old testicle-based meme, and part of this feels like it’s intentional. The majority of the characters in the film have names that must be intentionally comedic, like Morf Vandewalt, Rhodora Haze, Jon Dondon, and of course, Vetril Dease, but every on-the-nose attempt at humour falls flat and undermines the film’s main drive of horror and social critique, which makes the final product unfocused and tonally inconsistent. Velvet Buzzsaw got me to laugh out loud and cringe in terror in equal measure, but never when it was the response Gilroy was trying to elicit.
Even if we ignore the inherent flaws in Velvet Buzsaw’s writing, it’s still a boring, bland film on a technical level. Visually, it looks like your average Netflix show, with flat shot composition, no trace of theme, and a disappointing disregard for color given that this is a movie about art. The soundtrack is your stock horror background noise, with cliché high-pitched whines and low, droning bass – the kind where you can read the Netflix caption of [creepy music] and get the same emotional value you would from listening to it. The sole exception is the string and piano composition that plays over the opening and closing credits, a moody, persistent plucking that sets a tone of suspense and classiness that appropriately reflects the film’s subject matter and setting, though ultimately, not the tone. The performances vary in quality from “simply wasted potential” (Gyllenhaal and Collette) to “completely emotionless and wooden” (Ashton). However, when there isn’t a single good performance across the board from such an explicitly talented cast, the responsibility lies with the director, not the actors.
The thing that maybe hurts the most about Velvet Buzzsaw is that you can tell Gilroy was trying, for the most part. This isn’t a lazy film. The ideas are generally decent, and a good horror-satire can work, as Get Out and American Psycho prove. However, those films are social commentary first and foremost – the horror is mostly there for flavor, supporting the message. With Velvet Buzzsaw, it’s the other way around. Once you peel away the thin exterior of art-world criticism, you’re simply left with… a bad horror movie. And as you’re watching and waiting for the shoe to drop and some kind of point beyond “artists are vapid, critics are mean” to be made, the film ends, and it’s revealed that all along, it was only ever a bad horror movie – a more shocking realisation than anything intentionally put together over its 113 minute runtime. There are bits of hope for Gilroy in the occasional good shot or thoughtfully thematic moment, but as a whole, Velvet Buzzsaw falls completely flat and doesn’t reflect the potential that I know Gilroy has to offer.