After creeping audiences out with 2014’s excellent Nightcrawler, a vampire movie disguised as a critique of local broadcast news, writer/director Dan Gilroy has returned to an acerbic take on horror with Velvet Buzzsaw, a quirky, quasi-ghost story involving cursed paintings that terrorize an already cutthroat Los Angeles art scene. Those able to parse the pseudo-intellectual gibberish will find some bloody genre thrills beneath a savage critique of self-obsessed artists, vapid dealers, and elitist tastemakers. Brightly shot and darkly funny, this cultural roast may seem like low-hanging fruit, but Gilroy’s sharp dialogue coupled with off-beat performances from his stellar cast keeps things zipping devilishly along even when the story gets bogged down in trying to explain its own silliness.
When a vast collection of never-before-seen paintings by a recently deceased, unknown artist called Vetril Dease (the names only get better) catches the eye of snooty art critic Morf Vandewalt (see?) and the queen of the gallery owners, Rhodora Haze (yep), the art world is all atwitter at the fresh meat. Greedy merchants jockey for position hoping to strike while the iron is hot as they peddle culture to wealthy buyers looking for the latest status symbol, while fellow artists can’t contain their jealousy in admiration for this new (and dead) talent. However, this boon may not be what it seems to Morf and his cohorts, and perhaps was never meant to be found. You see, something haunts these paintings — something evil, created from a tortured agony that now means to exact some sort of revenge.
The bodies of those who would exploit this artwork soon begin to turn up, gruesomely murdered by the paintings themselves, which furthers Morf (Jake Gyllenhaal) into an investigation that reveals a twisted past and a potentially dangerous future. It’s a goofy plot, one that measures once and cuts lots, never seeming entirely sure of the supernatural elements, but it manages to get from point A to C without too much trouble — as long as one doesn’t ask what happened to B. Threads involving a cat and a mousy secretary named Coco appear to have more to do with the proceedings than is let on, but the script apparently doesn’t feel the need to expound on that — it’s too busy taking gleeful potshots. Story probably won’t end up being the draw here, but it needn’t be. Velvet Buzzsaw contains just enough spooks and splats for genre fans, but it’s the hilariously pretentious characters at its center that really make the movie ooze with charm.
Gyllenhaal plays the bespectacled Morf like a Louis Bloom who has achieved his ambitions and now isn’t sure what to do, oddly confident in his esteemed position, yet still deeply insecure. He has no problem ripping a creator’s lifelong passion to shreds (“A bad review is better than sinking into the great glut of anonymity”) or even lambasting a passed colleague’s choice in caskets, yet stings at any criticism of his own work, immediately shielding himself under the cloak of integrity — despite tanking some exhibits for personal reasons. He’s back and forth with himself, a trait that extends to his love life, and that vacillation makes for another watchable curiosity, full of fascinating mannerisms and cadences brought to you by the Gilroy-Gyllenhaal team; they clearly work well together. Rene Russo plays Rhodora tough-as-nails, seasoned by a failed music career, now in this gig for the money. She also reveals shades of a certain Nightcrawler news producer; her relationship with Morf — though not quite as cold-blooded — is still mostly about power and manipulation.
Much of the fun of Velvet Buzzsaw is watching these two interact with the comfortable bubble they’ve blown for themselves, then be forced to deal with outside forces they don’t understand. Cocktail parties are rife with the kinds of people who would blindly applaud the Emperor’s new clothes, wannabe geniuses desperate to lap up any scraps from the table of their gallery masters, all the while conniving their own ascent. In one wickedly funny moment, a gruesome murder scene is obliviously mistaken for an installation; reality is checked at the door for these people. Even the handyman can’t resist boasting of his own artistic talents. Yet, everyday eye doctors and maintenance workers know nothing of these people’s lives, nor do they care, offering quizzical looks even as their free sunglasses are pronounced as “heinous.” Everyone and everything is sized up, a piece to be judged.
Gilroy never forgets to remind audiences of this gaze, often focusing in on his characters’ studious stares, and decorating various backdrops with watchful eyes, whether featured prominently in paintings or relegated to a subtler status. His camera also has a tendency to ‘look,’ especially in the moments of tension that precede a kill. These scenes are tightly constructed, at times more cinematic than the rest of the picture, which though refreshingly bright and colorful, is often a little too visually bland for its subject matter. Slick, yes — but safely so.
But what Velvet Buzzsaw lacks in aesthetics, it makes up for in stylish acting. Aside from the two leads, John Malkovich has fun with his once-brilliant-now-sober legend, Toni Colette (in another winning horror assignment) drips of oiliness as a former museum employee now turned art buyer, and Zawe Ashton makes for a convincingly sleazy social climber as she sacrifices morals for lifestyle. None of the people here are particularly likable, but they’re all so delectable to watch that the effect is the same. It’s sad to see some of them bite the dust.
Determining exactly why they’re biting that dust is like looking at an impressionist painting up close, but viewed from a distance, Velvet Buzzsaw is a skillful romp. The brush strokes might be too broad for those who like their slices more incisive, but outsiders curious about this specific world will find much to revel in. Dan Gilroy has painted another part of his town red, slathering satire over slaughter. It may not be art, but I know what I like.