Convincingly emulating modern art for better and worse, Velvet Buzzsaw leaves us with the vague notion that there’s either something substantive we missed, or, like two blobs of paint on a canvas, sometimes the surface is all there is.
After making serious waves with 2014’s captivatingly layered Nightcrawler, writer/director Dan Gilroy had audiences (including me) salivating for what was coming next. His follow-up, Roman J. Israel, Esq. rippled considerably less, though still housed Denzel Washington’s impressive performance. Velvet Buzzsaw, perhaps stylistically more of a companion to Nightcrawler, and starring both Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo once again, definitely ups the unconventionality (perhaps better simply described as weirdness) over its predecessor. Marketed as an arthouse horror flick using literal arthouses as the setting, the film eschewed easy categorization from the beginning. In fact, there aren’t too many films about modern art, let alone the business side of the modern art world, so Velvet Buzzsaw promised a window into a milieu obscured from the general populace, and in this sense it delivered. Where it struggled to fit snugly was genre. Is it satire? Drama? Horror? Thriller? All four? Like the work of the world it’s showcasing, Velvet Buzzsaw can entertain endless debate about which genre fits it best, but for a film tasked with presenting an engrossing story, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. Sometimes defying categorization doesn’t give art lofty airs. Sometimes it just means the work is incomplete.
One of Buzzsaw’s stumbling points that contributes to the genre confusion is its lack of focus. This permeates throughout the whole film right down to the lack of a main protagonist. The trailer showcases mostly Jake Gyllenhaal, who turns in an impressively committed performance, but the film follows three main protagonists, Gyllenhaal as a bigshot art critic, Russo as a high-powered curator and seller of art, and Zawe Ashton as her assistant turned partner, with a smattering of side characters popping up here and there as well. We never get too much time with any of them, which, in a way, is a positive because most of them are insufferable, pompous, generally materialistic money-grubbers obsessed with exclusivity and selling the next big thing—the antithesis of what real art is about.
This is where the satire comes in. The film concerns itself with the state of the modern art world and those who have placed themselves in the role of gatekeeper to up-and-coming artists: the gallery owners, promoters, and critics who can make or break a career with a few choice words or phone calls—those more concerned with consumption than creation. Buzzsaw treats them with a laughable contempt, giving them ridiculous names to match their faux-gentile attitudes; names like Gyllenhaal’s Morf Vandewalt, Russo’s Rhodora Haze, or, my personal favorite, Jon Dondon, played by Tom Sturridge. These mediators, doling out work with a stingy hand, artificially inflating demand, selectively selling to only the most exclusive of the upper-crust elite, are the polar opposites of the artists themselves, who are concerned with art for art’s sake. Gilroy presents two artists at different times in their life—fresh new voice, Damrish (Daveed Diggs), member of an artist’s collective, content to toil in the streets, creating art for all, seemingly unconcerned with fame and fortune. Then there’s Piers (John Malkovich), older, past his prime, disheveled and on the verge of washed-up, searching for something new to say, some new inspiration to rekindle his voice. Both of them are exploitatively treated by the gatekeepers, who spin them yarns of nurturement and mentorship hand-in-hand with fame and fortune. Where Damrish becomes seduced, Piers knows better, and treats the gatekeepers as the leeches they rightfully are.
There’s a good message here, with a unique spin on it. Art shouldn’t, and ultimately can’t be held hostage by money. Greed has no place in creativity. Art is for everyone. This would resonate better if the film wasn’t such a tonal mess. The satiric elements weave comedically through but turn on a dime towards mediocre thriller at best and badly executed horror at worst. As people start to die, we can’t really shed the undercurrent of comedy. Something about it is unintentionally funny. Some of this is the fault of the sound design: over-the-top stingers more at home in a student short than a third feature film fill every dramatic moment and deflate the tension like a wet balloon. The visual effects as well, which in scenes look inappropriately cartoonish, lend a comedic rather than horrifying aspect to scenes that should be unsettling. The thrills, which get more and more frequent as the film progresses, fail to deliver, devolving the plot into a forgettable meatgrinder as characters drop like flies.
Velvet Buzzsaw sports a unique premise and some biting messaging presented as effectively (and unsubtly) as a brick through a window. However, much of it is undermined by tonal mishmash and a mass of characters blurring the whole thing into an unfocused heap. Like much contemporary art, the meaning gets lost in translation, so we pick our little favorite parts instead.