VELVET BUZZSAW: Featured duo

In 2014, Dan Gilroy wrote and directed Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo in NIGHTCRAWLER. While not uniformly beloved, critics generally agree it felt like the kind of movie that burrowed into you and hung around, for better or worse. One recurring theme, even amongst those less than enthusiastic about the movie as a whole, was that Gyllenhaal had rarely been better. The trio now ride again in the Netflix film VELVET BUZZSAW. Does this look inside the art world with a side of cursed art match NIGHTCRAWLER unshakeableness? Only one way to find out.

VELVET BUZZSAW: George and Morf
Jake Gyllenhaal and Toni Collette dish and appreciate art in VELVET BUZZSAW. (Courtesy of Netflix)

The Idea Behind VELVET BUZZSAW

Josephina (Zawe Ashton) works at former punk rocker Rhodora Haze’s (Russo) highly fashionable art gallery. While she had been brought on as a sort of prodigy of Haze’s, the recent degeneration of their relationship and finding her neighbor, Dease (Alan Mandell), dead in the stairwell has knocked her off her game. However, Haze makes it very clear she does not care what has been getting in Josephina’s way. The boss demotes her would-be protege on the spot.

Later that day, Josephina returns to her apartment just in time to hear that her dead neighbor was something of an artist himself. Allowing herself a peek at his work, which he has demanded be destroyed after his death, she discovers he was an uncommon talent. Seeing an opportunity to not just prove herself to Haze but also to leapfrog her mentor, Josephina scoops up as much art as she can and declares herself the one who “discovered” Dease, posthumously. Sure, he said to destroy it all, but without any family or friends, there are ways around those requests.

Before long, news of this transcendent work spreads, sweeping up everyone—her art critic lover Morf Vandewalt (Gyllenhaal), a former museum curator turned buyer Gretchen (Toni Collette); a rival gallery owner, Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge); Piers (John Malkovich), a sober artist who can’t produce; a new-on-the-scene, idealistic artist Damrish (Daveed Diggs); and Coco (Natalia Dyer), an assistant who keeps getting hired and fired by all the players in its wake.

Before long, people start dying without explanation. Well, no explanation except for the presence of Dease’s art.

VELVET BUZZSAW: Morf
Jake Gyllenhaal is living a nightmare in VELVET BUZZSAW. He can’t find his car in the parking garage! (Courtesy of Netflix)

Writing VELVET BUZZSAW

You gotta give it to Gilroy. He goes all out.

The dialogue, from the jump, is so arch you might confuse it for Soldiers and Sailors Memorial (Look out! Local Connecticut reference!). I am not sure if the dialogue gets more digestible as the film progresses or the viewer just gets more use to it, kind of like reading Shakespeare, but thankfully it does find a rhythm. What about the language in those first ten minutes though? If you love the sound of different kinds of dialogue like I do, you might be game for it. If you don’t? You’ll be more than a little tempted to turn the thing off.

What I do appreciate, even with the highly stylized dialogue, is that Gilroy finds a way to make the characters sound different. Considering how often they are speaking in jargon or attempting to quote one another, that is no easy task, but Gilroy makes it work. Arch or not, each of the characters at least has their own personality imbedded in those words.

From a structural standpoint, the script feels a lot more in love with the art than the horror. The horror, while well-staged (see Filming below), feels perfunctory. It is rarely actually scary and even its goriest moment fails to deliver either sick joy or queasy repulsion. When we are in the art world, we might hate everyone talking, but at least, we are interested. When the movie breaks to horror, the script seems to check out.

VELVET BUZZSAW: Hoboman
Hoboman, the art robot, played by Mark Steger, begins as an part of an installation in VELVET BUZZSAW. Then he becomes something else. (Courtesy of Netflix)

Casting The Leads of VELVET BUZZSAW

Despite the plot more or less centering around Zawe Ashton’s Josephina and her action, the lead character is undoubtedly Gyllenhaal’s wonderfully named Morf. Despite all the backbiting and cattiness we see him engage in, Morf has an integrity that makes him unique amongst his peers. Save for one review he issues, he is honestly motivated by his love of art and creativity. He can be singularly unpleasant, but we can see the commitment when he rejects Gretchen’s invitation to collude. We may not know the field, but we can recognize someone who is serious about doing his job correctly.

Russo as the rebel turned capitalist is playing in a similar vein to the one she tapped in NIGHTCRAWLER as producer Nina Romina. Romina is more craven, for certain, but Russo renders Haze more tragic. She makes the gallery owner someone who has fallen from grace, recognizes it, and still refuses to change. It is grim stuff, but the actor keeps it moving so fast that we really only grasp the gravity of who she has become when she finally stops to reject it, perhaps too late.

Lastly, we have to circle back to Ashton. Despite being the inciting figure of the film, she ends up sort of the least interesting element. There is a listless quality to her character that makes sense in the early going but never seems to lift. While others seem enchanted by either Dease’s work or the dollars it promises, she seems passive. She may theone who stands to benefit from it the most, but she also seems to be the least moved by it. Regardless of whether this is a script or acting choice, it never bears fruit.

VELVET BUZZSAW: Josephina
Zawe Ashton is having quite the day. (Courtesy of Netflix)

Casting the Rest of the Callsheet

VELVET BUZZSAW is chock full of strong supporter players who get far too little to do. Whether it is Billy Magnussen as the blue-collar, jack-of-all-trades Bryson who wants into the art world or Malkovich’s sad plugged-up Piers, everyone is putting in some interesting performances. Alas, there just does not feel like the movie has enough space for them all. Giving Piers the metaphorical last word over the credits comes as a surprise and a touch I quite liked. However, it would have been more powerful if I hadn’t forgotten him. He had just been gone for so long by that point.

I do have to single out Natalia Dyer’s Coco who, progressively, becomes the butt of a dark cosmic joke running through VELVET BUZZSAW’S center. Cursed to never hold a job more than a few weeks and to always be the first of the named cast to find the dead, her escalating exasperation hits just the right tragicomic frequency. I knew Dyer previously from STRANGER THINGS, but her work here breaks from that so fully I did not put it together until I looked up her previous works. Considering it is not a role involving prosthetics, makeup, or the need to go big or go home, that’s a nice thing to have. She is an actor who can make characters come to life in very different ways.

VELVET BUZZSAW: Damrish and Piers
Daveed Diggs and John Malkovich admire art in a scene from VELVET BUZZSAW. (Courtesy of Netflix)

Filming VELVET BUZZSAW

Gilroy’s camera proves a hungry thing, following our characters through crowds, arounds corners, amongst exhibits with an almost relentless ruthlessness. However, he also recognizes the power of a good static shot. He gives us wideframe views to establish geography and let the dread of what exists beyond that static frame sink in. NIGHTCRAWLER is certainly the better film, but VELVET BUZZSAW may have the better composition.

In fact, composition is the number one thing the film has going for it. It is a beast of mostly atmosphere and image. In this way, Gilroy and the rest of the cast and crew acquit themselves nicely. The filmaker’s grasp of aesthetics is strong. Even when the demonic art in question does not spook us by appearance, Gilroy imbues each reveal with so much dread he forces you to assign it to the canvases.

VELVET BUZZSAW: Haze and Josephina
Rene Russo and Zawe Ashton review some portfolios in VELVET BUZZSAW. (Courtesy of Netflix)

That’s a Wrap!

However, it is all a bit soulless. To appropriate a quote from another film, it is all motion, but it has no animus. The atmosphere escalates well throughout the movie and had been well-crafted from the start. Look closer, though, and you find nothing underneath. The movie is truly engaging when oriented around the minutiae of the art world. When it tries to make us care about scared of the action onscreen though, we quickly realize how little interest we have in who lives, who dies, and how it happens.

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