Netflix's 'Velvet Buzzsaw' Is a Ludicrously Fun and Gory Art-World Satire
Sometimes a performance just seems destined to be turned into a meme. This isn't necessarily an insult. Take Jake Gyllenhaal in Velvet Buzzsaw, which premiered Sunday at the Sundance Film Festival and will hit Netflix on Friday. Let me paint some pictures for you. Imagine Gyllenhaal as a merciless and fastidious art critic taking a long drag on a vape of hash oil. Or working on a review, naked, a laptop artfully covering his privates. Or declaring, "Critique is so limiting and emotionally draining." Morf Vandewalt is a masterpiece of Gyllenhaal's current gonzo period, and you're going to be seeing a lot of him on the internet. And, yes, his name is Morf.
If it sounds like Velvet Buzzsaw is pure lunacy, well, it largely is, and it's highly entertaining lunacy at that. The pitch is simple: What if you lampooned the money- and status-hungry denizens of the art world, but then the art started killing people in gruesome ways? If that appeals to you, then you'll probably get a kick out this one, which reunites Gyllenhaal with his Nightcrawler writer-director Dan Gilroy and co-star Rene Russo, and also features a solid ensemble cast led by Toni Collette, John Malkovich, and Billy Magnussen.
The opening sequence sets up the lay of this land. As the camera and Morf navigate Miami's Art Basel, it introduces the audience to a wily, glamorous, nasty collection of characters. At the center is Russo's Rhodora Haze, who ruthlessly runs the influential Haze Gallery and was once part of a punk art collective knowns as, yes, Velvet Buzzsaw. One of her minions is Josephina (Fresh Meat's Zawe Ashton), recently broken up with her boyfriend and in need of a big win. In Miami, she and Morf start an affair, over puffs of the hash oil, that leads to Morf breaking up with his boyfriend. They return to Los Angeles -- and that's where things start getting creepy.
Josephina finds her neighbor, an old man named Ventril Dease, dead in the hallway of her building, but more crucially she discovers the work he left behind. His paintings, which he wanted destroyed, are eerie creations with shades of Goya, primal in their depictions of tortured souls. Josephina sees dollar signs and brings them to Rhodora, who seizes on them as the next sensation. But as Dease starts to become a posthumous phenomenon, weird shit starts to happen. Notably the people in Morf and Rhodora's orbit start to get picked off one by one and increasingly ridiculous ways. I'm reluctant to describe these deaths in detail -- even though the trailer spoiled some of them -- but they are most fun when they are most gruesome. Toni Collette's Gretchen -- a museum curator turned nasty advisor to a wealthy client who is doling out dollars for Dease -- is done in by a sculptural installment called Sphere. The piece is supposed to create a sensation dependent on whoever approaches it and sticks his or her hand inside. When Gretchen goes in for a feel, well, watch the trailer.
As the bodies pile up, Morf begins to unravel, giving us another prime Gyllenhaal mode: unhinged. Meanwhile, Rhodora tries as hard as she can to hang onto her new moneymaker. As one might expect, this goes well for no one.
Some of the potshots about the art scene that Velvet Buzzsaw takes are easy, like targeting Instagrammers who are more interested in taking pictures of themselves with the art than of the actual art itself. But it does so in such a darkly funny way that Gilroy's vision works, and is written with a specificity of place that makes it all the more pleasing. It's impeccably designed too -- as well it should be. Each character's wardrobe and dwelling is precisely calibrated to match the discerning taste of someone who considers him or herself an aesthete. The camera moves about with an air of dread, yes, but the images are largely outlandish, letting humor live in the paradox of lifestyle porn and grisly demises.
Velvet Buzzsaw leaves some of the details it drops hanging. For instance, Rhodora's days in the titular group are left unexplored. (If you're listening Mr. Gilroy, I would watch a full movie about that subject.) And those looking for a full explanation of the horrors Dease seems to inflict from the grave may be disappointed. The movie succeeds because of its deliciously catty soul. Even as it says that art should be about more than just spectacle, it relishes in the bitchiest of bon mots.
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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.