Dan Gilroy’s "Velvet Buzzsaw" is about as impactful as a four-year-old trying to explain physics to a classroom of scientists. The film knows that it has something to say, but doesn't know how to put it into understandable language.
It’s not uncommon for a film director to try and use his or her influence to take a stance on something controversial. Jordan Peele is the first person that comes to mind, who used carefully timed horror and comedy in "Get Out" (2016) to shed light on lingering racial tensions in the United States.
However, unlike Peele’s wildly successful demonstration, "Velvet Buzzsaw" relies on its own fictionalized knowledge of high-class art to prove an odd, jagged point that barely comes to fruition. Unless its goal was to confuse audiences, it never paints the picture it set out to complete.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Morf, an art critic with little understanding of social cues. After tearing apart artists’ work for years, a new collection of paintings starts to perplex him. Similar to ‘The Crying Boy,’ a painting by Giovanni Bragolin that has long been rumored to be haunted, these particular pieces of art start causing havoc amongst the high-end visual art world. How much havoc, you may be asking? Lots of bloody, jump-scare, weirdly coincidental havoc.
"Velvet Buzzsaw" was marketed as a horror-thriller, and in many ways, that tag is correct. It follows an all too familiar formula where the protagonists slowly die off in a sweep of gruesome, never explained deaths. Unlike Gilroy’s previous film ‘Nightcrawler’ (2014), a psychological thriller about news media, ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’ doesn’t gift us with the reasons as to why it wants to be scary. It uses shock value, blood and guts, and Hollywood A-listers to draw people in to its bland plot, but doesn't tell us why we should bother sticking around.
The visuals of the film, mainly the choreographed deaths, match up with traditional horror elements. The problem is, none of it matters by the time the film closes. Dare I say it, the scares are useless.
The script is another major downfall for Gilroy. The dialogue he’s written is cheesy, campy, and if that isn’t enough to steer you away, it never really pushes the plot anywhere. The director is trying desperately to prove a singular point: Critics of art will perish by art. Yeah, we get it, and sure, maybe I’ll be eaten alive by a painting for critiquing the director, but just having this stance doesn’t mean others will believe it.
By having such an off-paced narrative, criminally underdeveloped characters, and a monster that never receives an explanation, Gilroy isn’t critiquing anything. All he is doing is muddling that fine line between artistic snobbiness and deep visual analysis.
Following this trend of bad news, the cinematography is safe and predictable. Robert Elswit, whose work consists of ‘Nightcrawler,’ ‘There Will Be Blood’ (2007) and ‘Good Night, and Good Luck’ (2005), never surprises us. You would think a film all about the power of art and the influence of critics would feature an impressive demonstration of visuals. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. The sets, the gruesome deaths, and even the climactic ending all feel very staged and too touched by the molding hands of Hollywood. It’s as though Gilroy leashed his cinematographer, never letting him show off the full range of his talents.
While all of these elements may tangle up "Velvet Buzzsaw’s" final point, it’s the inconsistent tone that really nails the coffin shut. At times, the film takes a more satirical route, and it’s during these moments that Gilroy’s writing talents come into play. It makes fun of itself, and in doing so, develops its critique of high art in an effective way.
However, the majority of "Velvet Buzzsaw" is serious, self-indulgent and way too concerned with appearing high-brow. These flip-flopping directions damage the plot and the pacing, and ultimately demonstrate that Gilroy, as well as the characters in the film, have no idea what they really want to say.
- Final Thoughts -
A star cast and façade of high-brow thinking can’t save "Velvet Buzzsaw" from appearing self-indulgent. At points, the film finds its footing when satirizing art and the powers it can hold, but it doesn’t last long enough to keep things fresh. Instead, Gilroy’s latest thriller is a dry, uninspired slog into what it means to consume art.
("Velvet Buzzsaw" image courtesy of IMDb)