Director: Dan Gilroy
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Zawe Ashton, Natalie Dyer
There’s so much content these days. Dan Gilroy’s latest film, Velvet Buzzsaw, has arrived on Netflix as unceremoniously as anything else. In fact, in light of the arrival of yet another of their ten-a-penny original shows stealing its thunder when you log in, you’ll probably have to search in order to find it. It won’t be top of the search results, either.
But is it all just content? Is there any art to it? Velvet Buzzsaw finds Gilroy reuniting with Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo, having last worked with them on the De Palma style noir delights of Nightcrawler. Where previously Gilroy took aim at the vultures of 24 hour news, he now turns his satirical gaze on the art world, and particularly the role of the critic, perhaps in response to the lukewarm reception to the (undervalued) Roman J Israel Esq, which now sits between these two films like an anomaly. If so, it’s far too soon to be so bitter, Dan. That’s if he’s being serious at all.
Gyllenhaal plays Morf Vanderwalt (the names here are Cronenberg-level), a notoriously snide and snobby LA art critic. “In our world you are God” Rene Russo’s buyer Rhodora Haze advises him, but he needs no telling. “I assess out of admiration,” he says, “I further the realm I analyse”. One day, Morf’s mutual rebound Josephina (Zawe Ashton) discovers the body of a man in her apartment building. Prying further, she finds a treasure trove of art in the dead man’s former home. She rescues it and builds a sensation. Everyone adores the work, particularly Morf, and the darlings of the art scene start trying to outmaneuver one another for a piece of the action. But the work itself might thin the herd for them.
Improbably, Velvet Buzzsaw morphs (sorry) from blunt, Nathan Barley-esque mockery to bizarre and campy horror, as all art starts exerting a supernatural force akin to the mysterious machinations that occur just outside of frame in the Final Destination films. An installation traps artist Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge) in a scenario straight out of Sinister, while a gigantic reflective sphere provides the film’s most OTT ‘set piece’, capped by a wickedly funny post script. To give you some idea of the tonal mayhem going on, this is then followed by a scene that reenacts a classic plotline from the TV show Friends. Velvet Buzzsaw culminates in a fun three-pronged game of Guess The Victim. It’s all very, very silly.
And very much a throwback piece. Gilroy’s latest has the feel of late 90s / early 00s high-concept horror, back when the genre was spinning its wheels in the wake of Scream. All sorts of nonsense got the green light, and some riotous results ensued. Buzzsaw adheres to the old knock-em-off one-by-one theorem… except fine art was never the culprit. There’s a wedge of exposition from Gyllenhaal’s Morf – delivered as narration, no less – to provide some semblance of a reason, but honestly who cares? Nobody ever needed to know why Michael Myers did what he did. Another touchstone appears to be Mark Z Danielewski’s as-yet-unfilmed ‘unfilmable novel’ House Of Leaves.
Gyllenhaal appears to be channeling Nicolas Cage for his turn as Morf, especially during the inevitable spiral into paranoia and madness when the art he criticises starts fighting back. And maybe that’s the gleeful kernel of wish fulfilment for Gilroy? One gets the impression he has little time for those who make a living assessing the creative graft of others. As a result it’s not hard to understand why some critics are finding Velvet Buzzsaw risible, treating it as a petty attack. Perhaps everyone needs to loosen up a little. Gilroy certainly takes the lead on that score. Despite its roster of divas, Buzzsaw feels less precious than his previous works, less inhibited by wondering what anyone will think, actually. The shooting style is clean, simple, with vague Soderbergh vibes coursing through. The LA depicted here is airy and gentrified, in stark contrast to the gasoline haze of Nightcrawler. The film is also dotted with unusual and delightful supporting players, from Daveed Diggs (hot off of Blindspotting) and Toni Collette (hot again off of Hereditary) through to John Malkovich (who seemingly thinks he’s still on the set of Bird Box).
The responsibilities of the critic are pried into here, albeit quite dimly, as Morf’s damning reviews come back to haunt him (figuratively and literally). Limited as my own sphere of influence is, I feel the pangs of reticence whenever I’m inclined to take a negative stance (unleash the world’s smallest violin, please). All art, one hopes, is invested with something of its creator(s). Diminishing such efforts is no fun at all.
And still there is a case to be made for taste; for the good and the bad, the inspired and the insipid. Velvet Buzzsaw flits gleefully between the two and, I suspect, deliberately. This may well be Gilroy’s Southland Tales or Nocturnal Animals or Under The Silver Lake. If it is, that feels curiously intentional. A big old fuck you. Don’t for the life of you take it seriously. Take it easy. It’s all just content. Just squiggles in the sand, ready to be washed away.