Dan Gilroy burst onto the directorial scene after years of screenplay writing with Nightcrawler. It was a disturbing and thought-provoking film that blended the genres of horror, thriller, drama, and arthouse seamlessly, all while offering up a chilling social commentary on the 24-hour news cycle we live in today. Then he made Roman J. Israel, Esq., which… was a movie.
I’m not saying it was a bad film, but the second I saw trailers for Netflix’s Velvet Buzzsaw, which brought Jake Gyllenhaal and Gilroy back together for what appeared to be another wickedly strange movie I was excited for a return to form. This is the exact type of movie that Gilroy is a genius at making, but this arthouse horror is also the type of movie that can easily go off the rails.
Here we arrive at the problem. After seeing Velvet Buzzsaw I don’t know which happened. Gilroy has either constructed one of the smartest meta-commentaries on art and film I’ve seen in recent years or he’s gone completely off the rails and delivered a subpar horror film in which paintings kill people. I truly have no idea which so… maybe the movie is a success?
Director: Dan Gilroy
Release Date: February 1, 2018 [Netflix]
The plot of Velvet Buzzsaw sounds like it was ripped from a bad 80s slasher film that’s garnered a cult following over the last 30 years. Its basic plot is that a woman named Josephina (Zawe Ashton) finds a massive collection of art in the apartment of a deceased old man in her building. She brings it to her art critic friend, Morf Vandewalt (Gyllenhaal), and eventually begins selling it through the gallery she works for, which is run by Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo). Turns out that the art is inhabited by an evil spirit that hunts down anyone who has profited from it by killing them through any form of art they may encounter. I mean, this is grindhouse story quality here, but Gilroy brings in a bit more contextualization to it, for better and worse. The movie is set up to critique the art world and much of its playing time is more soft parody than horror.
I find it hard to believe that Gilroy, a man who has written some of the more context heavy screenplays over the past few decades, would deliver such a bog standard horror film as the plot suggests, especially one that isn’t even all that scary. The film’s first half is mostly a parody of the art world, with some of the smartest dialog I’ve heard in ages toeing the line between mockery and seriousness. The film may play out slowly for this part, but its an enjoyable stroll. Yet the second half of the movie is so hamfisted in its moral lessons it is hard to connect the two at all. See, it’s the folks that treat art like a commodity that get hurt! Bad people. Art is art, not money! Movie makes point. You like movie.
Thus the conundrum. Is this hamfisted dichotomy actually a statement on film itself or just bad filmmaking. The film sets up these characters as pretentious asses, over-analyzing every aspect of any piece of art and self-aggrandizing each other. Is Gilroy pointing the finger back at the audience then by steering the film straight into banal horror film tropes by the end? Is he practically mocking the very people watching the film so as to comment on our need to find meaning in something that is supposed to be art? It would be a genius twist if so. He himself is the avenging artist out to punish us for our pretention and desire to make something out of nothing — which may be exactly what I’m doing now.
Then again, maybe he just lost control of the film. It’s easy to see this result as well. If the movie is a meta-commentary in and of itself it’s none too good at expressing it or I wouldn’t be this unsure. If this is the case, then the movie really doesn’t work well at all. The horror aspects aren’t too creative and Gilroy’s execution of the death scenes is middling at best. If he’s going for straight grindhouse in the latter half of the film then there’s very little grind. There’s some creepy stuff in here but as a horror movie, this one falls drastically flat. It’s hard to understand why it would go so far off the tracks unless it was intentional.
Then again, maybe my lack of understanding is the exact point of the film as it tries to express that art isn’t for profit and we all find our own meaning where we want to. Maybe the point is to like what you like and screw the critics and the tastemakers.
Damn it. Get out of my head, Velvet Buzzsaw! Get out of my head!
Something that’s not really debatable is how well Gyllenhaal and Gilroy work together. The director seems to pull out some of the actor’s best and oddest work, and Morf Vandewalt is right up there. The sexually ambiguous, smooth-talking, slowly-devolving portrayal that Gyllenhaal delivers is at once creepy, charming, and uncomfortably relatable. Morf is also the only character in the film to even come remotely close to redemption as he spins more and more out of control. But then again this character arc seems rushed. The creeping insanity pushed to the side far too quickly for a cheap thrill near the end of the film. Another clever twist in the ongoing commentary of the movie or just poor plot development?
Russo, along with Toni Collette as a modern art museum head who sells her soul for a more lucrative private job, deliver the other strong performances of the film. Russo is an ex-punk rocker, who abandoned her life of rock and roll to keep art from the eyes of the masses by selling it to the rich. It’s a testament to her skill that she can turn such a cookie cutter concept into something more. The rest of the cast is pretty interchangeable overall, especially Natalia Dyer, whose point in the film is unclear. Of course, John Malkovich isn’t interchangeable but that’s simply because he just plays John Malkovich, lending the film another surreal nod as you kind of wonder if this is actually some sort of secret sequel to Being John Malkovich. Is someone else just living in his head making modern art? God, that would make this film so fucking meta my head would explode.
I have to stop trying to find meaning in this film. But what I won’t stop doing is thinking about Velvet Buzzsaw and I suppose no matter what the real answer to my mental quandary over the film is, that means it did its job. Like any true piece of art, if it hooks you in and makes you think then it doesn’t matter if it is $5 street art you bought from a hawker in New York or a million dollar Monet, it has done its job. Bravo, Dan Gilroy, you’re either an artistic genius or made a dud. Either way, thanks for the movie.
(Note: my score rests somewhere in the middle of these two possibilities.)