Velvet Buzzsaw is writer-director Dan Gilroy’s first foray into the horror genre, however, he is no stranger to dark filmmaking. His 2014 film Nightcrawler was a dark and pointed critique of the media’s obsession with violence, so when I learned his latest outing would be a critique of the money hungry art scene I was thrilled. Gilroy’s final product is a little bit more complicated than that though; he certainly takes aim at the people profiting off art and artists, but he also touches on journalistic integrity while trying to adhere to a horror movie framework. It is an ambitious formula that ultimately fails while attempting to balance of its goals and influences.
Velvet Buzzsaw centers around Morf Vanderwalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) as an influential art critic, when his romantic interest and perspective art dealer Josephina (Zawe Ashton) brings to his attention the work of a recently deceased painter. He instantly hails his work as a revelation and begins to shower the artist with praise, making his work the talk of the art scene. However, with the artist being dead and without any heirs, Josephina more or less steals his work to gain reputation and money. Eventually, a dark past is revealed by Vanderwalt’s investigation into the artist, and mysterious murders begin to seek out everyone who aimed to profit from his work.
Velvet Buzzsaw does get some things right; its cast, for one, gives their all, and doesn’t hold back. Gyllenhaal especially hams it up as a super pretentious art critic, who no doubt serves as a stand-in for every overly ostentatious film critic that has reviewed Gilroy’s films or will be reviewing this film. John Malkovich gives a funny, if not tragic, turn as an artist being blocked by sobriety. All the performances accentuate the style of film Gilroy is shooting for by leaving second thoughts at the door and forgoing subtlety in place of acting with as much character and expression as possible.
The story at the center of Velvet Buzzsaw is what holds it back more than anything else. It does not fully commit to the satire it promises to deliver by stopping its critique at, “bad people make money off of other people’s passion” and “artists risk everything to make what they love, and critics risk nothing through their work”. I agree with these sentiments, but we have seen these messages before; it is a shallow satire. I might be OK with sacrificing its satire if it was for a more full-blown horror style, but even then, it does not commit. The blood and gore stop just short of being memorable and there is little to no atmospheric horror developed in its run-time.
A long list of goals leaves this film feeling like a great idea on paper, and a so-so film in practice.