Let’s be honest, the art world is incredibly easy to pick on. Everyone walks around looking important in stark white galleries, making airy proclamations about splotches on a canvas. Or, at least, that’s how it can appear from the outside. Velvet Buzzsaw and director Dan Gilroy take that inherent self-importance, crank it up to eleven, and add some horror for good measure. It’s an unexpectedly humorous look at the modern art world, told through a Final Destination lens.
Jake Gyllenhaal, who previously worked with Gilroy on 2014’s Nightcrawler, plays Morf Vandewalt (what a name), a renowned art critic. The film opens at Art Basel Miami as Morf saunters past the lines of people waiting to get in and goes straight into the galleries. We’re quickly introduced to the rest of our cast of characters as Morf walks around the renowned show. There’s Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), the powerful gallerist looking for her next big artist, her right-hand woman Josephine (Zawe Ashton), determined to make a name for herself, museum curator Gretchen (Toni Collette), increasingly disillusioned with the non-profit art world, and competing gallery owner Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge). In this version of the art world, these are the important players (at least in their heads), and the artists are on the periphery, involved but not leading the band.
Their gilded world starts to shift once Josephine discovers a trove of paintings done by her recently deceased neighbor, Vetril Dease. Ignoring his wishes to have his work destroyed, she brings them to Morf, and the work quickly becomes the new must-have item. But slowly, everyone associated with selling Dease’s pieces starts seeing hallucinations, and then they all start dying mysterious deaths.
As a standalone horror film, Velvet Buzzsaw isn’t breaking any new ground. A supernatural force causing mysterious deaths in creative and interesting ways is a concept we’ve already seen plenty of times. What’s much more fun is the humorous takedown of an art world obsessed with money and power. Not only do the characters have fantastic names, but the dialogue is incredible as well, especially from Morf, who Gyllenhaal portrays with irresistible mannerisms, musings, and affectation. “Critique is so limiting and emotionally draining,” he confesses to Rhodora. He uses words like “mesmeric” and “ensorcelled”. He dismisses his ripped physique as a product of Pilates and Peloton. This is Gyllenhaal in his element, similar to when he took on the intense role of Louis Bloom in Gilroy’s Nightcrawler.
The art world critique itself is familiar. Gilroy seems to sneer at art dealers and gallery owners too obsessed with making money to pay attention to the art itself. They use artspeak as a means to get to a higher selling price. The line between real-life events and installation blur, so that one is left wondering if the garbage on the stark white floor is refuse or purposeful art. These are all complaints the art world has heard before.
Still, it’s a creative takedown of an easy target. Even if it bludgeons its message home and gets a bit messy at the end, it’s a fun watch. Perfect for a Netflix streaming film.