Dan Gilroy’s low-brow horror-comedy set in the high-brow Los Angeles art scene is the epitome of the Netflix movie.
Velvet Buzzsaw strives to comment on the intersection of art and commerce. Whether it succeeds in saying anything at all is questionable, but the intention is clearly there. As the first movie to reach audiences out of its Sundance premiere mere days before it hit Netflix for all to consume, it, in a way, becomes the epitome of this model from the streaming platform.
Netflix is, after all, the best and most prominent example of that intersection of art and commerce we witness right now. Here is a space where likely future Best Picture winner Roma sits on the same tier as trash, meme-generator Bird Box. Thanks to Netflix, these two films, which are a far cry from being at the same caliber of craftsmanship and prestige, are given the same weight because they’re both a finger’s click away on the platform.
More and more this is what we’re seeing with Netflix, and so it’s almost too fitting that Velvet Buzzsaw, a movie that takes aim at commodifying art and the greed that consumes well-intentioned consumers of said art, lands on the platform, as well. It’s a movie tailor-made for Netflix, a movie that signals that the idea of a “Netflix movie” might be a genre in and of itself.
From Dan Gilroy, whose film before this, the Denzel Washington vehicle from 2017, Roman J. Israel, Esq., was maligned by critics and therefore ignored by audiences, one can’t help but wonder if he’s taking his frustration out on critics with the movie’s portrayal of Jake Gyllenhaal’s harsh critic character. Although, this movie has a lot more in common with 2014’s Nightcrawler, which was largely well-received. It re-teams Rene Russo and Jake Gyllenhaal in scenery-chewing, unhinged performances.
Gyllenhaal plays bitchy, bisexual art critic Morf Vandewalt, and Russo plays severe and cut-throat gallery owner Rhodora Haze. They play off each other with comic fire, creating a similarly delicious dynamic opposite each other as they did in Nightcrawler. The two have the Los Angeles art scene at their fingertips; that is, until Josephina, played by Wanderlust‘s Zawe Ashton with a pretentious purr, unexpectedly enters the scene in a way neither of them suspect.
When Josephina’s elderly neighbor dies, she comes upon collections of tattered paintings in his apartment that she sees inherent value in. She brings their existence to light, and it sets the art world ablaze. Everyone wants a piece of this mysterious artwork, but it also slowly comes to light there could be a sinister presence tied to these pieces.
Dan Gilroy populates the rest of this world with an equally screwy cast of characters. John Malkovich plays Piers, a gruff, frustrated artist facing a creative block; Blindspotting‘s Daveed Diggs’ is Damrish, a bright new talented face in the art community everyone’s clamoring to work with; a snippy and scrappy art advisor named Gretchen is played by Toni Collette; and the ever-suffering assistant Coco is played by Stranger Things‘ Natalia Dyer.
All of these players have a stake in the game, but it turns out they are all just pawns in a larger, more cruelly cosmic game that plays out like an art house Final Destination. The evil spirit residing inside the newly discovered artwork is out to get revenge for everyone’s insipid behavior. Nearly every character is foul and perpetuating the idea of commodification of art turning to needless greed, and they suffer the consequences.
None of this commentary really lands, but the movie is nearly a commentary in and of itself, working in its own twisted way as a response to the recent wave of arthouse horror, like Hereditary and The Witch. Here, Gilroy digs into the bargain bin of horror tropes, delivering classic jump scares and standard kills that you’d find in an early 2000s horror B-movie.
Typically, these worlds are filled with raucous, bad decision-making teenagers who are picked off one by one by a malicious presence, but here it is very rich adults acting like children. Populating a conventional horror world with these characters is a clever twist on the genre and a fun juxtaposition as the movie doesn’t mind reveling in the low-brow in a high-brow setting.
Plot and story-wise, Velvet Buzzsaw is a haphazard mess. It basically is a facade to give viewers a playground to watch these despicable characters get murdered in increasingly inventive ways. For lack of a better term, it’s trash, but it’s exactly the type of mid-level trash that has become the standard enjoyable enough Netflix diversion.
Best of all is Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance, which, while not quite as unhinged as Okja, is a campy romp, as he flicks his wrists, casts snide remarks and walks around gleefully naked. The image of Gyllenhaal nude at home on his laptop has already sparked a meme. No complaints there, and honestly that image circulating was enough for me to tune in regardless of quality.
There’s also something being said about the futility of criticism with Gyllenhaal’s character constantly getting beaten up over his bad reviews that are ruining people. “Critique is so limiting and emotionally draining,” he says. Russo’s Rhodora later remarks, “All art is dangerous, Morf,” when he comes to her concerned about the artwork containing an evil spirit.
Dan Gilroy swirls around a lot of lofty ideals, splattering them like paint against a blank canvas, and while none of it ever really sticks, it’s nearly affecting enough just in the passion delivered by his actors. I mean, Gyllenhaal in one instance speaks so violently into Russo’s face, it literally blows her hair back.