Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

Director: Dan Gilroy

Starring: Zawe Ashton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Collette, John Malkovich

Netflix have been busy as ever, and new out on the streaming giant following its Sundance premier is Velvet Buzzsaw, a mysterious horror set in an image-obsessed art world in L.A from Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler, 2014). Completing his L.A. trilogy (comprised of Nightcrawler, Roman J. Israel Esq. and Velvet Buzzsaw) he continues his look at corruption and darkness in the people that live there.

Josephina (Zawe Ashton, Not Safe for Work) works for strong and successful former punk rocker turned gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo, Get Shorty) and is struggling to get ahead, until the death of a neighbour brings a chance at the power and prestige she’s been looking for. As the art world rave and she, her boss and her friend/lover Morf (Jake Gyllenhaal, Donnie Darko) among others enjoy the good fortune that has come their way, strange things begin to happen and it turns out that as we all know, there is always a price to pay for getting what you want through using others.

Velvet Buzzsaw has been pegged frequently as being a horror-satire, and to be honest it’s not hard to do satire in a film set in the art world – it’s ripe for a satirical take. Here the viewer is presented with some wonderful caricatures of everyone you would expect to find in an art gallery, filled with grandiose self-importance and view of themselves as being different, but strangely they all still feel like compelling characters. For instance, Morf is icy and sharp, an art reviewer who can’t stop at just giving his two cents on the art but in fact everything he encounters regardless of whether anyone wants to hear it, yet he’s also lonely, and holds himself to high morals with his work and dealings with others. Josephina hungers for power and acceptance, to be a step up from where she is now, yet this only happens because she worries over a cat that has been left alone. Each character has a duality to them that stops them from being just mere stereotypes, and they are given the room to breathe and evolve as the film goes on. Though the characters may not think it themselves, they are more than just their art-based careers. Velvet Buzzsaw goes beyond satire and horror, into a character study of people and their motivations, and how those can be felled by darkness and want.

What really helps this is the fine cast assembled to play the lead roles. Jake Gyllenhaal always does his best work in strange and complicated characters I find, and Morf is no exception, cold yet needy, excitable and restrained at once, it’s no surprise that there have been calls on Twitter for more Morf in some form (my preference would be a web series set in art galleries reviewing works). Toni Collette as the once idealistic curator/buyer Gretchen is simply further proof that she is a great asset to any horror, she slips into the roles completely with such ease they feel made for her. In all honestly there isn’t a weak member of the cast, my only real sadness was that for me there wasn’t enough John Malkovich, who is so much fun as a put-upon big artist Piers that I really wanted more in any capacity.

Visually the film is rather striking, and feels reminiscent of many art galleries – clean, stark and minimalist for the most part with a lot of white walls on view. There’s a crispness to it that feels a little empty, perhaps a nod to the potential shallowness of the lives portrayed on screen. What’s interesting is that this means the artwork at the centre of the film’s story stands out even more for it, where that world is sterile and bright the paintings are vivid yet murky, and visceral in more ways that one. The way the characters of Velvet Buzzsaw are drawn to the pieces is like how your eye is drawn to them on screen, they’re something different and out of place which is intriguing to the eye.

There are also some nice giallo and horror touches to Velvet Buzzsaw that I appreciated – particularly Argento, one scene that evokes The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) clearly, as well as nods to The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) as well as a little bit of House of Wax (2005) throw into the mix in terms of gore. These are nice little touches for the seasoned horror fan to spot yet I’m sure that it doesn’t detract from the film if you don’t spot them as sometimes references to older films can. Velvet Buzzsaw also manages to capture a giallo-feeling in its mood and building of tension, focussing on mystery and oddities that unravel as it progresses, building up to dark and violent moments that have a somewhat karmic feeling about them. The best way to describe this film is that it’s The Monkey’s Paw told in a giallo style and set in the art world. Weird right? But essentially that is what this film is, and though that description doesn’t sound like it works for the most part it does.

As I said, for the most part Velvet Buzzsaw works. It’s a well-written and interesting take on a classic horror concept, ably performed by some wonderful actors. It does have some weakness, mostly in consistency that are a shame but understandable. Whilst allowing the characters the space to become these three-dimensional people that the viewer is interested it through the film it feels like the horror elements are somewhat on the backburner throughout, Gilroy builds the mystery and tension well throughout the film, slowly unravelling the strangeness whilst allowing the audience to think for themselves. but whilst the build is so good, the payoff is limited at best. Don’t get me wrong, there are some straight up horror scenes in Velvet Buzzsaw which I enjoyed, the goriest of which had me laughing (it’s okay, I’m strange don’t worry too much about it), but it didn’t quite feel like enough – for all the tension and mystery it felt like it should have come to something bigger and which doesn’t happen.

Velvet Buzzsaw is an enjoyable watch, even if I was left slightly disappointed. If you look at it as a character study of morals and corruption rather than a horror film, it’s a great mysterious story that holds the viewers attention and serves as a reminder that greed and selfishness is never good. It kind of feels like it doesn’t know what kind of horror it wants to be. the gore scenes are kind of novel, and in my view hilariously good fun, and though they don’t feel overly integral to the story being told are a welcome addition, but it’s best creepiness comes in the tension and mystery behind the paintings rather than in splatter. Honestly though these are minor grumbles, it would have been nice for it to feel a little more cohesive in certain elements but nonetheless I enjoyed getting to step into this world and get to know these characters and their motivations as well as playing detective whilst watching all the weirdness that was going on. This is one of Netflix’s better films and a great companion piece to Gilroy’s superb Nightcrawler should you be looking for a double-bill on a cold, dark evening.

Overall Rating: 3.5/5 An absorbing and very watchable art-based horror that feels a little unsure of itself but still deserves a watch.

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