I spend an embarrassing amount of time on Netflix aimlessly scrolling, adding new films to my list or rewatching the same series I have already seen a thousand times (I’m looking at you, Drag Race). So when I saw the trailer for Velvet Buzzsaw I was super excited – a genre-bending, Jake Gyllenhaal-led satire film written and directed by Dan Gilroy – what’s not to love? I’m a massive fan of Nightcrawler so naturally, I had high hopes for this release.
Velvet Buzzsaw follows various characters in the contemporary world of art in Los Angeles, including art critique Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal), an intriguing man with a great deal of influence in his field and Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), owner of the Haze Gallery. Morf feels unsatisfied in his relationship with his current boyfriend Ed (Sedale Threatt Jr.), and rekindles his previous attachment to Josephina (Zawe Ashton), who works for Rhodora.
Everyone seems to be discontent with present collections and are on the hunt for the next big thing. This is when Josephina discovers a man called Vetril Dease who lived in her building has died – she enters his home to discover thousands of paintings. As Josephina begins to release his work to the eye’s of the public, strange things start happening. Anyone that attempts to profit from or act greedy in any way due to Dease’ work ends up dying under mysterious circumstances – the art starts to come to life to kill anyone who has done wrong morally, sometimes causing all evidence of the person’s death to disappear.
Pretty cool concept, right? All in all, it follows the classic horror narrative of being punished for sin, making it fairly predictable. Dease’s ‘spirit’ acts as the force that deems the guilty few to be punished and decides their fate. One by one, the profit-hunters are picked off by Dease’s art (or his ‘spirit’ seems to embody other artwork such as the Sphere and the Hoboman) – even when Morf realises the danger and warns everyone.
Morf starts to head towards a mental breakdown and becomes haunted by the negative reviews he’s written and how he has harshly critiqued these different artists’ work. He becomes more aware of the damage he has caused and feels guilty, although is still deemed sinful and he is killed when the Hoboman is brought to life by Dease’s ‘spirit’. Rhodora seems to narrowly avoid death, however, just before the credits her tattoo of her old band ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’ comes to life and kills her, taking his final victim. Is the ‘spirit’ finally satisfied?
These underlying themes of greed and paying the price for acting in a selfish manner, especially displayed in the world of art, strongly shone through, working to subtly comment on how artforms and creative expressions that are so pure and passionate are drained for profit and celebrated for all the wrong reasons. Originally created as a outlet to reflect on Dease’s abuse-filled childhood and bad mental health struggles, his artwork was always meant to be destroyed and was never intended to be sold for fame or fortune. His ‘spirit’ seems set on punishing those who have forgotten the purity and hard work that goes into artistic expression – Dease literally painted with his own blood. If that doesn’t prove a point (and make you feel a little uncomfortable) I don’t know what will. His legacy and body of work act a symbol for the passionate artist, unfit and too vulnerable for such a superficial world. John Malkovich’s character Piers also symbolises this belief. An artist who hasn’t created anything ‘show-stopping’ in years and is now seen as less important and less worthy of attention because of this – expression should be for the self. This is amplified during the credits where we see him on the beach drawing patterns in the sand only for them to be washed away – he is creating simply to create, not to be observed.
Also, the role of the critic is touched upon with Morf’s character. I can only assume this stems from Gilroy’s own experiences in the public eye, having your work torn apart (whoops, sorry) without true thought of its consequences. Through this I can sense the drive for celebrating the creation of art simply just to create and not to be analysed and placed value on. I find this take and exploration about expression truly intriguing and powerful, however, part of me feels as though more could have been done to really push the message within the narrative. Using such a limiting skeleton for the plot I believe hindered the impact this film could’ve truly had.
To describe my viewing in one word? Underwhelmed. Some of the characterisation was enticing and the general concept was edgy, however, the weight of the narrative didn’t pull it over the finish line for me. Some themes that were touch upon like greed and harsh critiquing (which is now hilariously ironic) I enjoyed but it just felt as though something was missing. My understanding with Dan Gilroy, from this piece and Nightcrawler is that he enjoys a darker side to realism, where the events and chaos that have occurred suddenly seems to disappear as life all around us continues and I can see that through his work. I just wish he’d taken the surrealist elements that step further to amplify the message.
Velvet Buzzsaw is available to stream on Netflix now