Velvet Buzzsaw review – Netflix art world horror is flawed but fun

Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo reunite with Nightcrawler writer-director Dan Gilroy for a silly-but-energetic film that tries to match scares with satire

At one point in Velvet Buzzsaw, Dan Gilroy’s cynical, malformed horror made for Netflix, Zawe Ashton’s ambitious gallery worker spits: “What’s the point of art if no one sees it?” One can feel her speaking to the audience, echoed by the platform’s suits because, without their reach, there’s no way such a massive audience would ever see this bizarro genre-splicer.

A confounding combination of satire and the supernatural, it feels like the sort of mid-budget gamble that only Netflix would make at the moment. It’s a mess, but a mostly enjoyable one, wildly careering between farce and frights, never risking boredom along the way. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Morf, the most respected and feared art critic in LA, who finds himself edging away from his personal trainer boyfriend and closer to Josephine (Zawe Ashton), who works for the devious Rhodora (Rene Russo), a punk rocker turned gallery owner. When a neighbour dies, Josephine finds an apartment filled with “otherworldly” art that soon becomes the talk of the town. But as the buzz builds, so do the bodies.

Gilroy’s last film as both writer and director was knotty legal drama Roman J Israel and there’s a similar shagginess here, at times appealingly scattershot and at other times, a tad frustrating. The film starts on sure, sharp footing as the camera swirls around Art Basel Miami, introducing a myriad ensemble of art elites. It’s a world that’s easy to parody but Gilroy avoids the ghoulish extremes of Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals and offers up a believably pretentious battleground. He’s as invested in crafting a fully fleshed art world as he is in creating a full-on horror film and while the two often blend well, at other times, his concoction is far less effective.

Because for all of the idiosyncrasies packed into the film, there’s an equal number of genre conventions that Gilroy is unable to avoid. The premise might sound unique but during the second act, when the horror ramps up, we leave untamed territory and settle into formula, especially when interested parties start digging into the cursed artist’s background, evoking Ring all the way through to Truth or Dare. The death scenes also feel a bit too restrained, at least in the outset, and Gilroy struggles to add any genuine suspense, relying more on gory shock value.

Gyllenhaal has fun as a sexually fluid critic, questioning himself and his place in the art world although nowhere near as much fun as Russo, who tears into her monstrous role with a toxic tenacity, rampaging through galleries and art parties with no remorse for anyone she tramples over. Russo is one of many deeply talented older women in Hollywood who has been unfairly left on the shelf and it took husband Gilroy to bring her back in Nightcrawler, a film that should have led to a string of juicier roles but, sadly, didn’t. Her work here will hopefully do more. It’s great to see Ashton, always the standout from Fresh Meat, in such a big role although as her character descends, so does her performance, pitched a little too broad to truly convince as anything but a caricature. The overlong running time also squeezes in roles for Toni Collette, Daveed Diggs, Billy Magnusson, Tom Sturridge and John Malkovich and at times, it feels like Gilroy has added a little bit too much to his plate with underdeveloped ideas, subplots and characters all jostling for space.

Despite flaws, there’s a strange curiosity that propels Velvet Buzzsaw and Gilroy’s unusual, bitter, silly, and often very funny genre cocktail does make for a fun diversion. There’s probably a smoother, tighter, calmer movie in here somewhere but Gilroy is far happier leaning into his wild side and for the most part, I was happy to see just how far he’s willing to go.

  • Velvet Buzzsaw is showing at the Sundance film festival and will be on Netflix from 1 February

Contributor

Benjamin Lee

The GuardianTramp

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