‘Velvet Buzzsaw’ is a Satisfying, if Predictable, Satire on the Horrors of Art-World Pretension
The film might have been improved without all the, you know, horror.
Velvet Buzzsaw, Dan Gilroy’s outlandish satire of the commercial art world, paints a target on everyone’s back. It follows an incestuous network of artists, gallerists, curators, and one especially biting critic (Morf Vandewalt, portrayed by a delightfully sardonic Jake Gyllenhaal), all scrambling to flip art into the hands of the highest bidder, even if it means betraying employers, exes, and innocent gallery girls.
The biggest hit at Gilroy’s haptic Miami Art Basel, which opens the film, is “Sphere,” a large silver orb riddled with dark, mysterious holes. Curator Gretchen (Toni Collette) marvels at the object’s use of state-of-the-art sensors and processors that create a “unique sensation, depending upon the person, in whatever hole they decide to explore. Just like life.”
Gretchen’s zeal for her seven-figure acquisition oversells the common function of fine art. Most artworks, even those produced without state-of-the-art technology, intimately connect to those who see it. Each individual gets their own tailored experience because of the tendency to psychologically project their own emotions, memories, and imaginative interpretations onto work. This is part of the allure to the art world, one reason why an abstract paintings fetch millions. An emotion can be so profound that one wants to possess that sensation forever.
Vitril Dease’s paintings are especially transcendent, and therefore, more valuable. When Dease dies, his neighbor and aspiring art dealer Josephina (Zawe Ashton) finds a trove of his anguished but enrapturing paintings and pounces on the opportunity to sell his works. Josephina’s desperate desire to please the formidable Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), a punk rocker turned elite gallerist, combined with her ambition to enter the upper echelon of the art market, pushes her to disregard Dease’s wishes to burn his entire oeuvre. Predictably, their venture comes at a grave price.
At this point, Gilroy’s satire morphs into a formulaic horror movie, methodically peppering in the requisite jump scares, moody music, and spooky cat to build tension that dissipates after the first murder. Dease’s paintings punish those who prioritize the exchange of capital over artistic integrity. His spirit’s revenge repetitively manifests in cartoonish violence and spurts of blood. The most over-the-top death goes to Gretchen and her beloved “Sphere.” Alone with the sculpture at night, Gretchen delightedly reaches into one of its chambers, but the possessed object malfunctions and severs her arm, spraying blood throughout each hole like a nightmarish geyser. In the morning, kids mistake the work for an art installation. They frolic in Gretchen’s blood, excited about this new frontier of interactive, selfie-friendly art.
Amidst the rapidly accelerating spate of art world deaths, Morf finds himself plagued with frightening hallucinations. He digs into Dease’s history, learning of the horrific childhood abuse, wartime PTSD, and potential serial murders Dease endured in his lifetime. Morf’s guilt convinces him to write an article about Dease’s troubled background and begs the survivors to stop selling paintings, hoping that it will appease Dease’s murderous spirit.
Those who scrambled to sell Dease know they tread an ethically gray area. Rhodora, for instance, hires a team of lawyers to hide the questionable legality of Josephina’s discovery. And though Dease’s paintings are cited as the culprit, the victims are actually killed by other artworks, mostly ones they’ve chosen to exhibit. This fact makes Dease’s backstory serve more as a rationalization for the horror rather than an important asset to Gilroy’s overall message, which is no deeper than Capitalism is Bad.
Velvet Buzzsaw would have been better without Dease. Underneath the grandiose displays of wealth, narcissism, and backstabbing, the characters are smart enough to know they’ve made moral compromises to serve their self-interests. Morf—Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of whom was potentially based on New York art critic Jerry Saltz—is the most cognizant of the damage he’s caused through his reviews. In a sound installation, he hears his own words recited back to him, scathing and loathing, which brings him to the brink of a breakdown. And wouldn’t it have been more interesting if he was destroyed by his own madness, rather than the spirit of a madman?
Gilroy may have shied away from thesis because, ultimately, he doesn’t need nearly two hours to propose it. David Chase addressed art and the psyche more quickly and eloquently in The Sopranos. In the first season’s third episode, “Denial, Anger, Acceptance,” Tony Soprano, before entering therapy, spots “spooky and depressing” painting of a rotted-out tree in the waiting room. Fixated, he snaps at his therapist, Dr. Melfi, “that is a special-made psychological picture. Like that what-do-you-call-it test. The Corshack.” But Dr. Melfi reveals that the tree depicted is healthy and intact. The problems weighing on Tony—his murders, affairs, and as good friend’s cancer diagnosis—project onto the art.
Despite Velvet Buzzsaw’s flawed premise, the film is mostly fun to watch when its not attempting to be a horror movie. The cast commits to their snob personas with gusto, and it’s especially wonderful to watch Morf’s descent into madness, his eyes bugging and voice cracking as Gyllenhaal channels the erratic energy of Nicolas Cage. The fashion is a visual feast of ridiculously expensive and eccentric pieces that offset sour personalities with personable style. And even when the art world gets exaggerated to the point of cliché, the art direction, from each lavish home to perfectly curated exhibition, perfectly captures the aesthetic of the art world. Gilroy’s film might not offer any groundbreaking commentary on the art scene, but for those who get a kick from seeing the rich squirm, Velvet Buzzsaw will satisfy the psyche.