In theaters for a week before being served up to Netflix subscribers (it’s a new world, folks…), Dan Gilroy’s satire of the Los Angeles art scene gets off to a deliciously depraved start. Velvet Buzzsaw is a bonbon spiked with wit and malice, inviting us to join a nest of hyper-articulate, morally hollow vipers as they destroy each other with cruelly hilarious abandon. What fun, until it isn’t anymore. As writer and director, Gilroy misguidedly turns his lampoon of the greedy elite who bugger art in the name of commerce into a clunky horror show. For real. Gilroy bloodies up his A-list actors — led by a smashing Jake Gyllenhaal as a sniping critic — the minute they compromise their integrity for profit. It’s no surprise that hardly anyone is alive by the time the film ends. It is a surprise that Gilroy would center his entire film on such a shopworn theme. Money is good for business but bad for the soul. Is that all there is? Sadly, yes, with gore as the cherry on top.
There were possibilities in Velvet Buzzsaw. You can still feel diabolical potential inching its way onto Gilroy’s canvas. For starters, Gilroy and Gyllenhaal bring out the best in each other. In 2014’s Nightcrawler, still a career high for both, Gyllenhaal played a toxic TV news cameraman eager to feed the public the carnage it craves. As critic Morf Vanderwalt (priceless name) in Velvet Buzzsaw, Gyllenhaal is something worse. Morf is a malignant lily of the field in the art world. He toils not and neither does he spin, but damn he can end a career with his acid-dipped reviews. A swanning Gyllenhaal, peering at paintings behind his chic glasses, plays Morf as effete, as confused by art as he is by his sexuality. Having broken up with a dude, a personal trainer who’s been selling advance peeks at his reviews, Morf takes up with Josephina (Zawe Ashton), whose almond skin turns him on and who works for Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), a power gallery owner whose knows Morf’s reviews can make her richer than she already is. What made these people who they are? Gilroy sacrifices character development and a ripe cast to reinvent himself as old-school Roger Corman. It’s a disheartening trade-off.
First introduced at Art Basel in Miami, a Garden of Eden for art connoisseurs, these serpents hiss, slither and strike with venomous glee. Russo, who is Gilroy’s wife and a major force in Nightcrawler, shows an elegant façade that can’t hide Rhodora’s instinct for the jugular. “I used to be punk,” she tells Morf. “Now I’m a purveyor of good taste.” Ouch. Russo is dynamite, as is Toni Collette as Gretchen, a museum curator turned art advisor (translation: it pays way more). John Malkovich scores as Piers, an artist lost in the money trap. And Daveed Diggs plays Damrish, an up-and-comer determined not to make the same mistakes as Piers. Even Coco (Natalia Dyer), a seemingly innocent young receptionist, is soon caught in the web.
There is nothing wrong with Gilroy letting these eccentrics reveal themselves in a distorted funhouse mirror. Instead, they get Velvet Buzzsaw (the name of Rhodora’s old punk band), which buries their singularities in horror tropes. It starts when Josephina finds a dead neighbor, Ventril Dease, in the hall of her apartment building. Passers-by mistake the old man’s corpse for an art installation (good one). The superintendent orders the paintings in the geezer’s flat to be trashed. But she sees something in the violent canvases and takes them home. It turns out Dease’s work is — in the words of Morf — “visionary, mesmeric.” There’s gold to be plundered from the late recluse, who may have also been a serial killer who painted with the blood of his victims. But Dease left strict instructions that his work must be destroyed, never commodified or commercialized. Are you kidding? When there’s money to be made? That’s when the bodies start piling up — some burned, some hacked up, some possessed.
With the great Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) shooting these scenes and lighting the vibrant costumes from designers Trish Summerville and Isis Mussenden, Velvet Buzzsaw is never less than a feast for the eyes even when it reduces the plot to B-level butchery. What’s missing is the potent provocation that Gilroy seemed to be developing at the start. It turns out that the tepid scares are a velvet buzzkill that leaves all these tantalizing characters in search of something to play. Gilroy shows his weakest hand with the scare stuff. Will it make his film more saleable? Maybe. But he’ll have the avenging ghost of Dease to answer to, not to mention audiences who expected so much more from the talent at hand.