Speechless, I was utterly speechless by the end of 2014’s Nightcrawler. I had so much to say but simply could not gather the faculty or the cogency of thought to express it. Gilroy’s pointed writing, sleek direction and demented satire on the fabled rags-to-riches story was a work of art. In fact, it was the first film that made me dive into Gyllenhaal’s portfolio of work. There is no pretension when I say that his performance as the tragedy-devouring cameraman, Lou Bloom is a dangerous one. It made me feel unsafe about the world, media and most importantly, the capitalist “hustlers” we see constantly being magnified on social media. It was transcendent in its repugnancy, enlightening in the bleakest way possible. It was a masterpiece.
And now 5 years later, I see Gilroy once again throwing his hat in the ring with Netflix’s Velvet Buzzsaw. A supernatural horror film set in the glamorous and cutthroat word of outsider art. Eagerly I waited to see what fresh terrors of the modern world Gilroy had in store for us. What new evils this insidious intersection between visual expression and yuppie consumerism would unleash upon my screen. Once again, Gilroy had left me speechless but not in the way he had before this.
The film mostly follows the life and times of the successful, polysexual art critic Morf Vanderwalt. The man has it all. Clout, money and a keen eye for what’s hot and what’s not in the outsider art industry. His world is turned upside down when an old flame uncovers an ungodly number of paintings found in the apartment of a dead man, Vetril Dease. When her boss Rhodora strong-arms her into selling and exhibiting Dease’s work, the two of them take the art world by storm. Buyers, sellers, critics and gallerists all over town are looking get in on Dease, including Morf himself.
There’s a magnetic quality about his work. Something hauntingly beautiful about them. That lifelike quality has definitely something to do with the fact that Dease was a highly disturbed individual who painted in human blood! One by one, those who buy and profit off his work begin to mysteriously die. Morf thinks he’s losing his mind but he doesn’t realize that he could lose his life. Dease lives through his work and will not rest till he brings all those who’ve grown fat off his misery to justice.
Gilroy flawlessly nails the nomenclature of the world he tries to paint. He manages to capture the pseudo-spiritual and viciously verbose language of the bourgeoisie art scene. It’s clear that he did his level best to immerse himself within the culture that comes with the territory. From the loftiest of ideal to its most catty and vapid elements. All of it would have served to have further built up the film’s believability and engaged me as an insider if it not for the actual people and events that surround this intriguing premise.
As fascinating as the industry is, Gilroy wavers in presenting any sort of meaningful drama beyond the typical cat-wars of The Devil Wears Prada. Merely replace the pretentious, highbrow cosmopolitans of the film with art gallery owners, advisers and critics. There’s nothing particularly egregious or exaggerated about the art scene microcosm but there’s a lack of innovation on Gilroy’s part to give any growth or development to the characters.
As for the actual meat of plot revolving around the paintings, they’re surprisingly predictable. In fact the only thing that truly shocked me was how much of the plot I predicted correctly. The trailer is also at fault here for jumping the gun and showing far too much of the film’s scares. It ruined most of the mystique that came with the revelation that the paintings are alive.
The truly disappointing part of the whole story of Velvet Buzzsaw would be the pacing itself. It’s uninspired. It starts with a crawl before graduating into a limpish sprint. I see that Dease is starting to move on his victims but the sheer predictability of these attacks left me neither terrified or impressed. A man leans into a picture? I wonder if the picture will come to life and attack him. The art of making effective horror films is misdirection. We think the threat is over but in actuality, it’s hanging right above us. Velvet Buzzsaw is content to foreshadow the living shit out of every jumpscare that comes our way, essentially robbing the scenes of any ambiguity. And when there’s little ambiguity, there’s little tension.
I will commend the effort placed into the artwork for the film. There were some genuinely unsettling paintings. Especially the one with the two children beating on a man. But while the paintings drew me into the film, the use of CGI and cliche horror movie stings consistently took me out of the experience. A good majority of them come off as bland and overused, except for one near the end of the film involving paint. That one was a fun bit of colourful mural madness. Seriously. I can watch this film in the dark with a picture of The Screamer and not feel a damn thing. The images are actually far more imposing when they’re just sitting there being still but the moment they start moving, they look awkward and artificial. I didn’t like the monkey scene in the trailer and I doubly dislike it now. Where was all of that thriller acumen you gathered from Nightcrawler, Gilroy? Where did it go?
Jake Gyllenhaal did fine as Morf, doing his best impression of a cool, metrosexual yuppie cruelly critiquing his peers. His quiet ferocity and energy definitely elevate the material he was given here. None of the actors here do a particularly terrible job. The issue is that they all seem to be putting on a Miranda Priestly act. Toni Collette does fine as the opportunistic parasite, Gretchen looking to get ahead in the world. But when Rene Russo (who is also Gilroy’s wife) is pulling the same shit as well, then it’s hard to really get invested in any of them as characters. There’s even a male version named Jon Dondon that talks with a strange, indiscernible accent. I did enjoy watching Natalia Dyer’s from Stranger Things who plays Coco, a secretary just trying to keep a job more than a day.
Velvet Buzzsaw briefly touches on the idea of the alienation of artistic expression and how the entire industry is just as shallow as any other in spite of all its posturing and perceived sophistication. I was constantly waiting for Gilroy to reveal his thesis but by the end, it all felt quite hollow. Whatever weight the film had carried at the beginning of the film slowly petered out until it just stopped altogether. It quickly became just another supernatural thriller with a few interesting ideas that were never fully developed.
As stated earlier, Velvet Buzzsaw left me without words for ultimately there was nothing of value to say about the film. Gilroy’s foray into supernatural horror is ironically ordinary in every sense of the word. The characters are caricatures, entertaining at best and insufferable at worst. The pacing and plot of the film are shockingly predictable, in the words of Morf “No courage, no originality. My opinion.” Gilroy’s Velvet Buzzsaw fails to deliver in frightful aesthetics beyond the occasional cheap jumpscare and while its talented cast works hard to lift the film from the ground, it sadly never reaches its full potential. It is the picture of mediocrity.
Velvet Buzzsaw is now streaming on Netflix.
Sadly not even the combined might of Jake Gyllenhaal and Toni Collette could overcome Velvet Buzzsaw's dull subplots, passe brand of horror and misguided direction. This is recommended for the faintest of hearts. For everyone else, sweet dreams.
Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) -- Netflix