February 4, 2019
1 Hr., 53 Mins.
elvet Buzzsaw (2019), like the street artist Banksy, hates the commodification of art. But unlike Banksy, whose ridiculing of the blurrily named “art world” is usually succinct and funny, bland horror comedy Velvet Buzzsaw dedicates 113 minutes to its scorn. Almost all of them are lifeless. The film, which was released on Netflix on Friday, involves an assortment of art-world bigwigs whose lives begin
to resemble a Final Destination movie after making a very bad call.
The cause for the bloodshed, it seems, is a new exhibit. Shortly into the movie, an agent named Josephina (Zawe Ashton) finds out that her neighbor, who recently died, was an artist, and a talented one at that. Seeing promise in the man’s oeuvre, Josephina steals some of his paintings, shows nail-tough gallery owner Rhodora (Rene Russo), and comes out with what she wants: a showcase. The art, though, seems cursed: Those who come into close contact with the paintings tend to die violently and mysteriously.
This is an attractive premise, to be sure: Velvet Buzzsaw is essentially a slasher movie, except the antagonist isn’t a loco, blade-wielding man but rather the vengeful spirit of one. (Or so it seems.) But the film is too noncommittal to even be successful at meeting the bare minimum that is being an interesting change of pace. It’s equal parts a run-of-the-mill slasher and an art-world satire, but its mixture of genre-based ideas never cohere, or, at the very least, convince individually.
Scenes of suspense are certainly enthralling and vaguely innovative when they pop up. One character is brazenly painted to death by some haunted acrylics, and another is attacked by a possessed robotic piece that, earlier in the movie, had been mocked. But the thrills are too sporadic to amount to much — akin to a musical that showcases a song-and-dance sequence every 40 minutes. The satire is meant to build off the ego-clashes of art-world titans: in addition to avaricious women like Josephina and Rhodora, some of the personalities included here include Morf (Jake Gyllenhaal), a supercilious critic; Gretchen (Toni Collette), a cold, blunt-bobbed curation assistant; Coco (Natalia Dyer), a hungry secretary who has no real interest in art; and Jon (Tom Sturridge), a gallery owner whose inclination toward popularity perhaps outweighs his love for artistic expression.
The horror set pieces, along with the soap-opera plots that bubble up, are all here to say that the intersection of art and commerce is, foundationally, a rather perverted thing, considering just how many really do suffer for their art. So what if the tables were turned? Because writer-director Dan Gilroy only superficially invests in anything he’s trying to say, however, the movie comes across as artificial and moralizing — with strong concepts but with neither enough bite nor emotional investment to make any idea or character stick. Such is a surprise, given how wonderfully his directorial debut and breakthrough, 2014’s Nightcrawler, satirized the ravenous nature of news media. “A bad review is better than sinking into the great glut of anonymity,” the Morf character tells an onlooker at one point. Regardless of Velvet Buzzsaw’s reviews, though, a movie so inert is probably headed for the great glut of horror anonymity anyway. D+