For all its glitz and gore, Velvet Buzzsaw is strangely paint-by-numbers
After the success of Dan Gilroy’s 2014 directorial debut Nightcrawler, a pitch-black satirical take-down of the relationship between journalist and consumer, Velvet Buzzsaw seems, on paper, a sure thing. Gilroy, along with Nightcrawler alumni Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo, heads back into the fray for another grizzly satire, this time picking at the flaking artifice of the art world. It’s a shame then, for all of its sparkling casting, gleaming set-pieces and ambitious horror/satire genre-splicing, that Velvet Buzzsaw ends up surprisingly paint-by-numbers.
Where Nightcrawler takes a subtler route to its message, Velvet Buzzsaw sets its satire-stall out early. Within the first four minutes we see with Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) critiquing a robotic Superman-Uncle Sam hybrid called Hoboman, gallery partner Josephina (Zawe Ashton) snapping Instagram selfies with the work, and an eyebrow-raisingly trendy haircut atop the head of Toni Collette’s Gretchen. When Hoboman’s creepy robo-eyes follow Morf as he walks away I literally said to myself, ‘well, he’s gonna come up later.’
And come up later he did. After Josephina discovers a startling collection in the dank apartment of her dead neighbour, Vetril Dease, the art world is set alight. Josephina’s career is made, her boss’s waning reputation is saved, and revered critic Vandewalt is given revived purpose, redirecting away from ‘limiting and emotionally draining’ critique and towards a long-form analysis of Dease’s life and work. Before long though, the art begins to turn on its audience, and anyone who profits from it winds up dead.
As far as satire goes, Velvet Buzzsaw is pretty Banksian. Where, for example, Ruben Östlund’s The Square (2017) offered a biting, complex exploration of the political bankruptcy and inherent classism of the art industry, Gilroy’s critique of a hyper-capitalist, hyper-fickle industry is fabulously on-the-nose, preoccupied with surface gloss.
But don’t get me wrong — I’m not above a bit of gloss. For all of Velvet Buzzsaw’s flaws, it’s never not entertaining. Jake Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of the wildly self-involved, self-serious art critic is fabulously extra, and Zawe Ashton’s off-kilter manner and barely-contained desperation for success are entirely at home in Gilroy’s world. Iris Mussenden and Trish Summerville’s costumes hint at the fun we’re supposed to be having with this film; each character is a parody of themselves.
When it really gets going, Velvet Buzzsaw ends up having less in common with The Square than it does with Final Destination; it all becomes a matter of who’s going to die next and how. None of the successive deaths offers much more than extreme schadenfreude (although there’s no denying that Toni Collette’s bloody dismemberment by a seven million dollar Koonsian sphere is particularly well paced). While it doesn’t really pass muster as a horror film, as a kind of black comedy Velvet Buzzsaw comes up with the goods. For all of its satirical shortcomings, there’s no denying the comic power of Tom Sturridge mistakenly admiring a cluster of bin bags, or of school children splashing in real blood, believing it to be an installation.
Anna Richmond is Editor at The Tung
Follow her on social media @thetungmagazine