Another week, another meme-worthy Netflix horror movie with top-drawer talent to spare that, like Bird Box, is incredibly messy, quite stupid, and (unlike Bird Box), extremely watchable. Writer/director Dan Gilroy has been part of the Hollywood machine for a couple of decades now but only got his chance to direct in 2015 with his fantastic debut, and perhaps the most egregious Oscar snub of the decade, Nightcrawler. Nightcrawler felt like the arrival of cinema’s next great creative voice, but Gilroy’s follow-up, the Denzel Washington-starring disaster Roman J. Israel, Esq. kind of put an end to those thoughts, at least in my fickle head.
Two films don’t make a career, so when the trailer for Velvet Buzzaw dropped, I was quite excited about this bonkers premise, which I’m actually surprised that it hasn’t been done before, along with the re-teaming of Nightcrawler stars Jake Gyllenhall and the massively underrated Rene Russo. Gilroy knocked it out of the park with his debut, fumbled his follow up, so there was no way for me to predict whether Velvet Buzzaw was any good. It’s not, but man, it’s not in a really fun way.
Gyllenhall stars as art critic Morf Vandewait, who is framed as the God of the art world in which the film is based – think Burt Lancaster in The Sweet Smell of Success but more jittery and not as well-dressed. Yet Morf isn’t really the main character, and he’s certainly not the person to get the story underway. That title belongs to Zawe Ashton’s ambitious Josephina who comes across hundreds of creepy, and extremely cool, paintings that might just be her own ticket to the big time of the art world.
Gilroy spends the first part of the movie setting the madcap, wildly amusing scene, full of shallow people looking at art and desperately trying to feel the most stylish emotion then putting a dollar value on it. It’s a while before the paintings turn up, start wreaking their bloody revenge on the art world professionals we’ve been following, and the horror part of the whole affair gets started, – and that’s when the movie loses its footing.
Building a movie around critics being esoterically punished for their attempts to quantify and commercialize art, to some extent, feels like an attempt to render Velvet Buzzsaw critic-proof. After the crushing critical failure of his last flick, it’s hard not to see this as a somewhat spiky pushback against audiences, critics, and studios alike, all represented by deeply unlikeable cliche characters in their own rights. And that’s an interesting premise, but it’s not an airtight one, especially when that satirical, meta-narration element overwhelms the actual point of this supposed horror movie.
While the set pieces are creative enough – Toni Collette, a big reflective ball, and a misplaced artistic respect provide the best kill of the movie, but the others are unsettling and creative enough, in a Final-Destination kind of way – Gilroy doesn’t come across as any kind of horror master. At best the scares would fit snugly within an episode of Supernatural, and at times the movie feels like a Winchester-less take down of the art scene rather than an engaging horror in its own right.
It also doesn’t help that Gilroy can’t decide whose story he is actually telling. Morf, the adjective fiend that he is, is the de-facto lead, but Joesphina and Rhodora (Russo) could make a strong case for themselves too. In fact, Morf’s connection to the main plot comes too late into the story to really set him up as a leading man, making the script seem as though it was written as a vehicle for another actor. Morf’s mental disintegration at the hands of the paintings starts off-screen, with us as the audience having to catch up to his point of view. That’s not good storytelling. An ensemble is all well and good, but you need to know who you’re hinging it on – or, indeed, if you’re hinging it on anyone at all.
In spite of these structural problems, and a distinct lack of proper scares, I couldn’t help but enjoy Velvet Buzzsaw. It makes a much better satirical comedy than a horror movie, and the performances are universally strong, but maybe for his next genre exercise, Gilroy should attempt something more in his wheelhouse.
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By Kevin Boyle
(header image via artnet.News)