Velvet Buzzsaw - Review

An unfortunate misstep with pitch-perfect performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Toni Collette.

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Velvet Buzzsaw is most certainly a reaction. To what exactly, is the mystery, but there is no way a director makes a film this bad still relatively fresh off his masterpiece, and it’s not meant to say something. Or maybe that’s not true: Dan Gilroy’s last feature, the left turn of Roman J. Israel, Esq., was an under-explained mistake. An efficient character piece for Denzel Washington, sure, but a confusing risk that fumbled its third act. That doesn’t immediately sound like Nightcrawler, Gilroy’s 2014 breakthrough starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo, but it does explain how he arrived at Velvet Buzzsaw, which reunites the two leads for a psychological thriller about art that literally murders people. Gyllenhaal is as charismatic as ever, as are all the actors in this film, but the story borders on absurd. It’s as if Gilroy saw the self-shredding Banksy painting that sold for $1.4 million and got inspired.

Velvet Buzzsaw is a B-horror movie that pretends to be A-list. Notice the talent, the high-concept script, and the various special effects. A key notifier for observant eyes should be apparent from the beginning: what is going on with the lighting? Every scene is either white, beige white, or unfittingly bland. There is no attempt to underscore the wild performances from Gyllenhaal and Collette with art-pop music, trippy sequences, or even the barest of essentials, communicative shots. Two shot here, one shot there, over the shoulder: it’s bland and vapid, which could be the point, being that this is a film about greedy connoisseurs stepping in the way of an artist’s intention...but no, it’s not. If that were the case, then why construct elaborate and ridiculous deaths for the worst of the bunch? It’s stylistic when it can afford to be, and therefore, when people expect it to be, which saps all suspense out of the central mystery.

It’s hard to decide whether or not to be happy that movies like this can exist. Bird Box then, now Velvet Buzzsaw; both films with extreme potential that are content to be genre exercises, ignoring some of the most fundamental aspects of filmmaking in favor of exciting concepts and marketing. With actors like Gyllenhaal, Russo, and Toni Collette attached, though, there is no excuse to make a film this bad. Gyllenhaal’s Morf Vanderwalt is a blessing, a pretentious art-critic the writers seem to wish was the main character. He’s the saving grace of the film, even though he is killed far before the final shot. Characters like Morf, or Toni Collette’s platinum wig-sporting Gretchen are signs of greatness that suffer from the shaky story. Beginning as a thin commentary on the excessive want of business-minded art patrons, it soon morphs (hehe) into a psychological slasher complete with gory deaths and call-back tropes. The hard shift into gritty filmmaking is the great misstep, as it takes away the two best things about the film: Gyllenhaal’s wit, and Collette’s being there.

There’s no use hating a film like Velvet Buzzsaw, it’s something we might not have ever seen. But it is furthering the idea that Netflix is becoming a haven for unmarketable, high-risk blunders with great potential. It’s not quite the disappointment of The Cloverfield Paradox (John Malkovich alone prevents that), but it is close.