Considering Dan Gilroy’s otherwise-inspired Nightcrawler was a bit obvious and dated as a media satire, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Velvet Buzzsaw, the writer-director’s spoof of the contemporary art world, feels as timely and incisive as 1959’s A Bucket of Blood. In other words, this is the movie for you if you don’t already know that modern art can be indistinguishable from garbage, that critics are pretentious snobs, and that commerce has thoroughly corrupted the creative process.
Also like A Bucket of Blood, Velvet Buzzsaw filters its sarcasm through the lens of horror. When macabre paintings by an unknown artist are discovered after his death and filtered through the art scene, gruesome murders follow. Among the ensemble cast are two Nightcrawler veterans—Jake Gyllenhaal as art critic Morf Vandewalt and Rene Russo as gallery owner Rhodora Haze—as well as stray appearances by Toni Collette, Daveed Diggs, and John Malkovich (who must love lampooning this world, given he also showed up in Art School Confidential). I’ll let thinner-skinned critics rant and rave about the ridiculousness of Gyllenhaal’s character, though I can’t resist sharing this detail: at one point, Morf shows up at an exhibition wearing a badge that states “CRITIC.”
Gilroy piles on lots of camera trickery (zooming through a champagne glass, reflecting ominous images in the pupils of characters) to match the broad performances. One touch I did like were the frequent shots from the paintings’ points of view. The horror element—the notion that the art itself can take vengeance on those who would exploit it—is compelling, except that the movie doesn’t really take advantage of it. In one creepy scene, a victim unknowingly recreates a position depicted in a painting just before she’s killed, but that idea—which suggests art has the power to possess—is never repeated. And as far as I can tell, at least two of the victims aren’t really complicit in the exploitation. They may be buffoons—just about everyone on screen is—but they’re also genuine art appreciators.
That’s probably taking Velvet Buzzsaw too seriously, considering the movie wields its mockery with the subtlety of a power tool. It just wants to be a joke. There is a moment where two characters walk into a space with a pile of garbage bags in the middle; watching it, I audibly begged the film not to do what I knew was coming. Sure enough, after one character lauds the trash piles with praises, the other character says, “That’s not art.” No, but it is tired satire.