Modern art meets supernatural horror in the Nightcrawler filmmaker’s sumptuously spotty art-gallery chiller.
Following the cerebrally messed up horror adventures of Hereditary and The VVitch, we are in a bit of a new era in horror. A time in which the mindfuck is just as important, if not more, than the physical scares or haunting kills. At first, Velvet Buzzsaw seems like a natural fit into this world: a high concept, symbolism-filled, high-art horror film that reunites writer/director Dan Gilroy and Jake Gyllenhaal for the first time since the nightmarish Nightcrawler. The much-ballyhooed trailer promised a pure rush of creepy adrenaline, but in practice…it’s hard to say. There’s so much Velvet Buzzsaw says and just as much that it feels unsure to mention.
Buzzsaw primarily focuses on art critic Morf Vandewalt (Gyllenhaal), gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), and aspiring curator/Rhodora’s employee Josephina (Zawe Ashton), navigating a deeply strange interpretation of the high-priced world of modern art. Following the death of Josephina’s upstairs neighbor, she discovers that he has left behind a score of heretofore-unseen paintings – works which depict a secret life filled with inner demons and turmoil. Despite the neighbor’s wishes for his work to be destroyed, Josephina, entranced by these paintings, steals his body of work and begins selling them through Rhodora’s gallery. And then, as it does in all horror, things get worse.
Gilroy’s high-caliber cast elevates the material quite nicely. Gyllenhaal, as with Nightcrawler, is a triumph, capturing Morf’s effortless ebb and flow of self-assuredness and his waning sanity. The few scenes where he and Toni Collette‘s art dealer interact are just so much freaking fun to watch. It’s almost like watching two people try and out-parody the worst of the art world, all while staying unbelievably grounded in the process. Russo (also returning from Nightcrawler) does an equally admirable job as the former punk rocker turned art elitist, but she isn’t given enough for her character to express more than
Where Buzzsaw really fails, however, is in basic horror fundamentals. One of the most egregious moments of this is the first moment when Morf notices one of the neighbor’s works of art mysteriously move. He begins to tell Josephina that this has been happening to him to the point that he’s worried about his own sanity. However, this hasn’t happened to him before in the movie. Instead of focusing on the horror of the moment, you have to spend a couple of minutes wondering if you completely missed a scene or if this is just a movie of very shoddy editing. The deeper the movie gets, the more it feels like Dan Gilroy (hampered by the editing of brother John Gilroy) just wasn’t prepared to adapt his notable skillset to this genre. There are other scenes that feel out of place, moments that could have been far scarier with just a little more patience, and random shifts in perspective that felt more they were covering up mistakes than taking part in the natural pacing of the film. Velvet Buzzsaw can’t really decide on if it wants its deaths to be hidden or for every gruesome second to be seen, which hampers the tone as well. For a movie with so many unsettling moments, it has a bad habit of playing things too safe in very big ways.
Where Velvet Buzzsaw shines, though, is in its darkly comic satire of the art world, a carryover from his ghoulish social satires like Nightcrawler and Roman J. Israel, Esq. To Gilroy’s credit, Velvet Buzzsaw is deliciously unflinching in its condemnation of people who view art as belonging to the wealthy and well-connected. It is incredibly satisfying to watch the characters that most deserve comeuppance get their share, but Gilroy still manages to invoke pity when they are trapped by whatever malevolent force that follows them. The method of the kills is also genuinely incredible (insert “will do for art what sharks did for water” quip here): the final kill might also be one of the most clever and horrifying ends in a horror film of the past few years.
Like a lot of Dan Gilroy films, Velvet Buzzsawis a difficult film to land on. Gilroy does quite a lot right, but the few places where he falters, he falters big. In the past, these are things that probably would be very easy to overlook. But in this new golden age of cerebral scares, these mistakes are that much harder to push aside, making it difficult to enjoy a movie that does so many other things quite well. Gilroy always tends to take big,