With Nightcrawler, writer/director Dan Gilroy teamed with Jake Gyllenhaal for a deliciously vicious evisceration of news media’s “if it bleeds it leads” culture with a format that was one-part thriller to one-part dark comedy. The result was a film that was wickedly entertaining and thought provoking, while proving Gyllenhaal is one of the most exhilarating actors of his generation. For all these reasons, I was positively giddy in anticipation of the pair’s reunion, Velvet Buzzsaw. Here Gilroy satirizes the snooty and sordid world of high art by blending dark humor and horror. But to my horror, lightning doesn’t strike twice.
Gyllenhaal stars as art critic Morf Vandewalt, whose negative reviews can kill a big sale and a career. He lives in a rarified world of posh apartments, gallery events, and demanding women with delectably audacious fashion sense. Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo) is a gallery owner who has built her reputation on great taste and ruthless strategy. Josephina (Zawe Ashton) is her ambitious protégé, with a sharp tongue, sharper eye, and a conveniently flexible moral code. Gretchen (Toni Collette) is an art dealer with a cutting wit and a diva’s demanding. And when these four decadent fiends latch onto the works of a mysterious, recently deceased painter, the art world will never be the same.
It all begins when Josephina discovers her reclusive neighbor has died in the midst of burning a lifetime’s worth of works. Desperate to make her name, she snatches all these powerful paintings away from their intended doom. With the help of the Haze gallery and Morf’s rapturous reviews, the art of the late Ventril Deasewill become a sensation, earning universally acclaim — even by up-and-coming talent (Daveed Diggs) and an established great (John Malkovich). But something is wrong. There’s blood in the mix and soon it will be on the walls, as the paintings of dead Dease come to life and wreak havoc.
There’s a dazzling dark fun to be had with Velvet Buzzsaw. Gilroy’s world of egos and high art is lascivious, lavish, and intoxicating. Everyone in it is equal parts pheromones and venom. The smugness that oozes from Russo’s side-eye and smirks is enchanting. Gilroy’s scripted esoteric prattle might have played stiffly, but Gyllenhaal delivers it with the same verve as slyly biting barbs about how an artist lost his edge once he gave up drinking. I swooned over exchanged glances that cut like an axe and Collette — in a blunt blond bob grinning like a Cheshire Cat — spilling tea. All of it is as juicy as Gyllenhaal “melancholy” correction in a recent Gilroy interview.
Velvet Buzzsaw is at its best when reveling in its trashiest excesses: shade, sex, and slaughter. A shot of Morf slipping his hand up a consenting partner’s skirt abruptly cuts to a close-up of a hairless cat. The association is tawdry yet terrific. Likewise, the kill scenes in this unusual slasher are ghoulishly entertaining. (But be warned: too many are spoiled in the trailer.) Gilroy gives us a Wonderland of artistic genius, reckless vanity, and astonishing greed. Then he rips it apart with the very art at its center. Unexpectedly, this is where Gilroy chooses restraint. There will be a snatch of violence, a flash of gore. But often the deaths happen offscreen, sometimes leaving behind a colorful corpse for a disturbing sting, sometimes exhibiting nothing else at all.
It’s an arguably artful choice. Slasher flicks tend to revel in the moment of death. Psycho was iconic for its shower scene that gave a grisly close-up of the dead stare of its victim. Still, a case can be made for subtler slays. But here it feels like Gilroy doesn’t know quite how to handle the horror genre expectations he’s set up. Offscreen kills are one thing. But Velvet Buzzsaw also spins its wheels with a mythos that is elaborate, but never exactly enlightening. Much like the slay scenes, it seems Gilroy is undecided on how much he wants to reveal. Teasing us then backing off abruptly. The result is a plotline that leaves a lot of questions dangling and this critic unsatisfied.
Based on its pedigree and premise, I expected Velvet Buzzsaw to be like a sophisticated spin on Tales From The Crypt, gruesome and garish with splashes of wicked wit. Half an hour in, I was enraptured, giggling and gasping. But Gilroy gets in his own way. His supernatural slaughters either needed no explanation or a thorough one to complete the investigation thread he began to unfurl. Instead, just as Morf begin to ask questions, the movie spills into a messy finale without answers. It’s twisted fun but ultimately frustrating.
Following its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Velvet Buzzsaw is now available on Netflix.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com