How much must we suffer for our art? Or, better yet, how much are we willing to suffer to appreciate it?
Velvet Buzzsaw, Dan Gilroy’s gonzo new horror satire of the art world that premiered Sunday at the Sundance Film Festival ahead of its launch Friday on Netflix, ponders those questions with a pretentious stroke of the chin, then laughs with glee while answering them, splattering blood with a Pollock-like flourish with each heaving guffaw.
It’s a deconstruction of a cheesy slasher movie, until it giddily becomes one itself. It’s a biting parody of the art culturati and the bubble of lunacy in which they operate. It’s horror. It’s comedy. It’s Jake Gyllenhaal as a bitchy bisexual art critic on the verge of a breakdown. Which is to say it’s glorious. It’s also a mess. It’s absolutely bonkers, until it’s kind of boring.
(The irony of a movie set in the art world driving us to a stream-of-conscious laundry list of “It’s…, it’s…, it’s…” hot takes, as if we were obnoxiously gazing at a gallery, is not lost on me.)
It’s Final Destination meets Night at the (Art) Museum, and just as ridiculous—and almost as fun—as that sounds. It’s all done with style that only Dan Gilroy, reuniting his Nightcrawler stars Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo, could accomplish. At best, it’s a flawed riot. And at least, it’s the wildest movie we’ve seen at Sundance thus far.
First, I would like to introduce the film’s characters, mostly just so I can write their amazing names.
Gyllenhaal is Morf Vandewalt (!!!), an esteemed art critic and tastemaker who slinks through galleries and expensive real estate swathed in a bespoke suit, a pair of glasses he adopts as a personality, and an untenable catty bravado. “Color. Life. I love it,” he raves as he swans into a room and takes in a piece. He uses phrases like “we have a taste relationship” as a come-on and sees “cornstalk” and “saddleback” where you see yellow and brown. He is naked several times, in the company of men and women.
Rene Russo is Rhedora Haze (!!!), a ruthless power-gallerist who salivates at the chance to profit off the previously undiscovered work of late artist Ventril Dease (!!!), the upstairs neighbor to Rhedora’s opportunist assistant Josephina (Hawe Ashton), who pillages Dease’s work after discovering him dead. Tom Sturridge is Jon Dondon (!!!), Rhedora’s biggest rival, while Toni Collette is a museum buyer obsessed with Dease’s work named Gretchen. (Don’t worry, her blunt white wig and delicious snootiness makes up for the comparatively drab name.)
Not one of these social climbers and well-dressed hustlers bats an eye at profiting off the work of a dead man, frantically tangling themselves in deceit and scheming in order to secure the biggest cut of the bounty. Only Gyllenhaal’s Mort bothers to learn anything about Dease’s backstory, though having the smallest blip of a conscience hardly immunizes him from the bloody lunacy that spreads through the community like a contagion.
The first act of the film, plunging you into this world of high-end art dealings with a devious sense of humor, is a delight, with Gyllenhaal once again going for broke in a fully committed performance that un-self-consciously adorns his leading role with character-actor flourish. He turns sass and narcissism into its own high art, matched by the enthusiasm of Collette and Russo in their respective performances.
Then the paintings start to come to life and kill them all.
In one instance, the face on one of Dease’s works glares at a driver through a rearview mirror, causing him to crash his car and catch on fire. Then a group of monkeys in a different work reach out from the painting and eat him. In an another instance, paint colors bleed off a canvas, consuming a gallerist until she becomes a part of the painting. A sculpture rips off the arm of another woman, leaving her bleeding on the museum’s floor. When the security guards arrive in the morning, they assume it’s part of the exhibit. Patrons spend the day taking photos.
Gilroy frames each of these gruesome kills with a wink, leading a crowded Park City at Sundance to raucously hoot, holler, and laugh through the gore. He plays into our groomed expectations from years of watching slasher horror movies like Final Destination, to the point that when each successive character is left alone with one of Dease’s pieces, we lean into the screen with giddy anticipation.
That, however, puts the onus on Gilroy to make each set piece wilder than the one before, much like an artist is crippled by his own previous successes. While one certainly could never argue that a film in which Jake Gyllenhaal screams in horror when a painting he’s staring at comes to life as he’s having aggressive sex is anything but crazy, maybe Velvet Buzzsaw isn’t crazy enough.
The satire at play here might be a bit on the nose. These characters are exploiting a dead artist’s work and are unfazed in their pursuit of continued profit even as it becomes clear it’s the noxious cast who may pay the ultimate price. That’s how shallow and greedy they are.
While the film’s depiction of the art world is certainly campy and often condescending—naturally, there’s a joke in which someone mistakes a mound of garbage bags for an art piece—its meticulous knowledge about the community and culture and exhaustive attention to detail could only come from a place of immersion and infatuation with the whole posh zoo of it all. And yet you leave the movie with the assumption that the world and its players are dumb. It’s a fascinating dichotomy—at least that’s what you could imagine Gyllenhaal’s art critic in the film saying.
Velvet Buzzsaw could be viewed as complement to Nightcrawler, turning the lens to the cultural elite where previously it had been judging the scum of the earth. But it pales in comparison to Gilroy’s—and Gyllenhaal’s—best work yet. Still, the trashiness, before it wears out its welcome after one too many monotonous horror set pieces, is irresistible.
It’s fun but flawed. Yet in a cultural landscape where so much of the art output, on film and TV especially, is content to settle for a mass-market designation of “fine,” a botched trip to the wild is a welcome journey.