Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)
Written & Directed by Dan Gilroy
Morf Vanderwalt is a dissatisfied art critic searching for something that will bring inspiration to him both personally and professionally. His relationships with other members of the art community are all transactional leaving him even more hollow. Josephina, a lover of Morf’s and an agent in the art world, discovers a neighbor has died, and his home is full of hypnotic, unsettling artwork. Ventril Dease is the deceased artist and no matter who glimpses his Goya-esque paintings they seem enthralled. Art gallery owner Rhodora Haze sees a long term market for Dease and decides to squirrel away most of the thousands of pictures to trickle them out slowly over time. This is when the strange deaths begin, and Morf starts to realize that there is an evil presence surrounding this artwork.
Dan Gilroy gave us the fantastic Nightcrawler, the disappointing Roman J. Israel, Esq., and now this disaster Velvet Buzzsaw. I get that Gilroy thinks he has made a biting satire about the art commodity world, but due to so many missteps in production, we have ended up with an uneven picture. It’s not smart or funny enough to be a decent satire, and it doesn’t seem sure what kind of horror vibe it wants to convey. I was able to tell that Gilroy was working with an intent in mind, but he didn’t seem to be able to execute that vision in any viable way.
One of the most glaring aspects of Velvet Buzzsaw is the editing. There are so many cuts between scenes that are painfully jarring. These cuts create issues of continuity and flow, missing the establishing shots to transition the character from one locale to another or cut from one character to a different character. Moreover, there are a ton of characters in this movie played by some great actors. Just some highlights are Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Colette, and John Malkovich. This overload of characters causes Gyllenhaal’s Morf to act as the central protagonist only in spurts. The other potential main character is Josephina (Zawe Ashton). Ashton’s performance, however, is awkward and unnatural.
Despite all these flaws, there was so much promise in the premise of the film. The idea of cursed paintings has the potential to be great. I loved that there was a slight investigation into Ventril Dease, but we only got broad strokes about his past. Keeping the creation and purpose of the paintings ambiguous heightens the horror. We see that these pieces of art aren’t the evil necessarily but can corrupt nearby artwork and use it to kill people who are profiting off of Dease’s work. Velvet Buzzsaw never answers the question “Why?” and that is perfectly fine.
While watching the movie, I kept thinking about Cary Fukunaga’s Maniac, an original series done for Netflix. Maniac is a highly stylized story that allowed Fukunaga to explore the ideas of mental health, guilt, and escapism. I feel like Velvet Buzzsaw would have played out better as a six-episode limited series, and that definitely would have remedied the editing and flow problems the feature film version suffers from. Now we’d still potentially have the same bad acting and weak script, but if a writing staff had been employed, they could have tweaked things to be slightly better. As it stands, Velvet Buzzsaw feels like the worst of American Horror Story, a horror-satire that thinks itself much cleverer than it is.