Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Zawe Ashton, Tom Sturridge, Toni Collette, Natalia Dyer, Daveed Diggs,
Director: Dan Gilroy
A satirical thriller set in the inane and insane world of Los Angeles’ contemporary art scene, Dan Gilroy’s delirious and deliciously garish Velvet Buzzsaw is a film that’s every bit as shiny and intentionally hollow as a dull-witted joke about the violent relationship between art and commerce, but the punchline is that it’s therefore the Platonic ideal of a Netflix film. Nothing could better define this industry-devouring studio (or its prolific motion picture output) than a star-studded cautionary tale about the fatal danger of assigning value to an abstract thing. Not only is Velvet Buzzsaw as mad as a balloonful of frogs, ironically it’s a fiercely uncommercial feature that only Netflix could make. It’s also blood-soaked propaganda for a streaming platform where every piece of art has an equal price. Where a magnum opus like Roma is effectively worth the same as an alleged comedy about a boy who has his genitalia cut off, and where something like Bird Box can become the most popular film in the world on the strength of its memes. Where a disembodied marketplace requires no box office, no taste, and no one to mourn for all of the talented people whose work is consigned to the void by the all-mighty algorithm that rules us all.
For thousands of years, art couldn’t exist without somebody to pay for it, but Netflix has come along to address the art world’s oldest dilemma and solve the conflict at the heart of Gilroy’s totally unclassifiable film such as Velvet Buzzsaw in which Jake Gyllenhaal is haunted by a homeless robot named Hoboman. But more immediately, Velvet Buzzsaw is a slasher flick about a several killer paintings. Gilroy’s wild script drops audiences into revered critic Morf Vanderwalt’s lap, as he stalks through an art gallery floor, sauntering between the exhibits like a lion who’s comfortable enough to look at the world as though it were his personal lunch menu. Jake Gyllenhaal who delivers a performance so big that it might not be able to fit on the screen of your phone, is very much at home with the go-for-broke tone of Gilroy’s work. Morf runs into the rest of the cast while making his rounds. There’s Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), a retired punk rocker whose prestigious art gallery is maybe too informed by Morf’s taste. There’s Rhodora’s flustered associate Josephina, whose flawless skin makes Morf forget all about his ex-boyfriend. There’s Gretchen (Toni Colette as a greedy museum curator), Piers (a somnambulant John Malkovich) and Damrish (Daveed Diggs as the hot new artist taking Piers’ place). The ensemble grows even more eccentric from there, but the other enjoyable character might also be the most normal - Coco (actress Natalia Dyer), an innocent young receptionist who has an unfortunate knack for stumbling upon dead bodies. The only corpse she doesn’t find is the one who kicks things off. It belongs to an old man named Dease, whom Josephina finds splayed out in the hallway of her domestic building.
Following a cat into the late tenant’s unlocked flat, the gallery assistant happens upon a grim sight that could satisfy her greatest ambitions: dozens of ghoulish paintings that have never seen the light of day. They’re clearly the work of a troubled mind, and they have a weird tendency to bleed and spontaneously catch fire, but they could mark the discovery of a major new artist. Josephina responds to the work after Morf and Rhodora share her enthusiasm - and the rest of the art world automatically does too. Was Dease an unknown genius, or a serial killer who painted with his victims’ blood and invested his soul into his art? Neither? Both? It doesn’t matter. It's a false economy that peddles in perception - and encourages people to spend millions on a mix of raw materials. And in this, anyone who believes in their own bullshit tends to wind up dead. Velvet Buzzsaw as you’ve probably already guessed by now, is not overly subtle. At one point, a curator played by Tom Sturridge confuses an actual pile of rubbish for a work of art.
The whole cast deserves serious kudos for being able to deliver lines like “Before the sublime, the whole body quivers” with a straight face. Even when the story dead ends and Gilroy’s commentary exhausts itself, these actors manage to drag the flim across the finishing line. Several of them even get to enjoy some fantastically bonkers death scenes along the way. It’s true that artists put their soul into their work and Velvet Buzzsaw imagines how angry those souls might get after being processed through the abattoir of the art market. In one very funny scene, Morf/Gyllenhal attends a funeral where he can’t stop himself from reviewing his dead friend’s “smog orange” coffin). The film looks at the world through a carnival mirror, and finds a fallen kingdom in which everyone needs external validation, and no one gets to determine their own value. Even Morf, who thinks of himself as a living God in the body of a gym addict, is eventually forced to question his own worth as the food chain between money and art begins to reshape itself into a flat circle or a reflective metal sphere. Gilroy’s film transcends the forgettable silliness of its existence as a monument to the idea that our own personal taste is the only real thing we’ve ever had.