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Film Reviews Review: Netflix’s Velvet Buzzsaw tries to cut the contemporary-art world in half, but slices itself instead

Rene Russo and Jake Gyllenhaal star in Velvet Buzzsaw.

Claudette Barius/Netflix/Netflix

  • Velvet Buzzsaw
  • Written and directed by Dan Gilroy
  • Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo and John Malkovich
  • Classification N/A; 112 minutes

rating

“You make me confused. It’s a tough head space for a critic.” So says visual-art critic Morf Vandewalt early in Velvet Buzzsaw, the new dark-comedy-cum-horror from writer-director Dan Gilroy. To centre a film on a critic is an eagerly meta idea, bold enough on its own. But to then have that character analyze the film he’s starring in as it unfolds is more than flirting with self-destruction – it’s an invitation to every real-world critic to chop the thing to bloody bits.

So yeah, there’s a real temptation to chuck Gilroy’s latest the-world-is-a-tire-fire satire down the trash chute. But wouldn’t that be playing into the filmmaker’s hands? Or am I simply misreading the usage of the character and letting Gilroy get away with meta-contextual murder? I suppose, like Morf, Velvet Buzzsaw left me very confused.

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Like Gilroy’s first feature, the tabloid-news-is-evil-didn’t-you-know drama Nightcrawler, there is nothing subtle about Velvet Buzzsaw. Or perhaps you gleaned that from the title already. Either way, from its first minute, the film takes a head-first swan dive into the shallow pool that is the contemporary-art scene, full of quick-to-judge critics (Jake Gyllenhaal’s Morf), fringe-clinging wannabes (Zawe Ashton’s Josephina) and greedy dealers (Rene Russo’s Rhodora Haze; these names!). There’s also John Malkovich’s Piers, an artist pure of intentions but at the moment creatively impotent, who seems to be a stand-in for Gilroy as he positions himself above this entirely silly environment, yet barely able to recognize his own role in the catastrophe to come.

And Velvet Buzzsaw does slip into catastrophe – ugly, easily cruel catastrophe – early. It’s only about 30 minutes in when Gilroy pivots from scenes of Morf being puzzled over an art installation of a homeless robot (“Hoboman”) and Rhodora waxing on about the brilliance of a piece titled “GoPro Kindergarten” to full-on, trope-laden supernatural scares. It’s here, when Josephina stumbles onto a cache of haunted paintings destined for the dumpster, that the film starts to think of itself as a Jackson Pollock painting (controlled chaos) when in fact it’s a Pollock forgery (reckless mess). For someone who uses the first quarter of his film to underline any and all modern-art clichés – some of which, like Toni Colette’s clueless curator, feel fittingly smug – it’s maddening that Gilroy then adopts the worst, most over-used horror-film tricks: Jump scares, spooky cats, slow-motion flashbacks and a hammer-to-the-head score combine to produce a sort of unintentional horror.

It’s at this point in the review where Morf himself might object, wondering whether Gilroy’s reversal of clichés is subversive, a commentary on how the best of artistic impulses gets compromised and commodified on its way to mass consumption. Possibly, Morf. Possibly. And given the fact that Gilroy has one character literally deify you (“In our world, you are God”), and Gyllenhaal offers a too-big-for-the-room performance that’s mostly delightful, I’m going to follow your lead and go with my hyperbolic gut reaction: Velvet Buzzsaw is ultimately a matter of taste – and mine was to spit it right back out.

Velvet Buzzsaw is available to stream now on Netflix.

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