Netflix’s Velvet Buzzsaw review: A literal critic-proof film?

Velvet Buzzsaw film via Netflix Media Center
Velvet Buzzsaw film via Netflix Media Center /

Velvet Buzzsaw is a classic case of ‘be careful what you wish for’ mixed with the environmental horror of Final Destination. Does this translate to a quality film? Can this film even be critiqued properly?

The world of art is most notably attached to descriptive words such as beautiful, elegant, radiant, and all the like. Yet despite that, the art world has a strange habit of bringing out the ugliness in humanity, enabling us to put art (and sometimes ourselves) onto an impossibly high pedestal that MUST be commented on and judged thoroughly. The characters of Dan Gilroy’s newest film, Velvet Buzzsaw, are prime examples of this philosophy, for better or for worse (mostly the latter).

Velvet Buzzsaw, from the director of 2014’s Nightcrawler and 2017’s Roman J. Israel Esq., explores the vanity-riddled side of the contemporary art world and showcases its ugly characters at the very core of it. We enter the land of snobby art critics, greedy gallery owners, ice-cold business people, etc, and watch as the tortured souls behind the art they profit off of exact their revenge on them, often to comically grisly results.

Did I mention that this is a horror movie? I already have, but it really shouldn’t go without saying. Velvet Buzzsaw lobs its sharp-pointed commentary points at the world of art criticism and the greed that dictates the state of art as is and it lands right in the jugular of the body, almost literally as a matter of fact. Gilroy’s critique of greed and criticism for the sake of profit comes through in actual blood spurts as the characters of Velvet Buzzsaw begin to feel the wrath of artist pain in the most straightforward (and fatal) manner possible. How does this translate into a feature film though?

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“Critique is so draining…”

It’d be mighty generous of me to state that Velvet Buzzsaw contains a tightly-knit story with grounded and complex characters that are thoroughly dissected and explored. Dan Gilroy doesn’t seem to be overly concerned with traditional story structure and puts his characters in an almost-permanent state of drifting about and looking at art. That is essentially what we get here with the main cast of the film, led by Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, and Toni Collette.

The meat of Velvet Buzzsaw‘s story comes when Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), the owner of an art gallery, and the workers and regulars of the gallery come across the works of a recently deceased artist named Vetril Dease, who kept all of his art pieces hoarded in his apartment. Seeing green, Haze and company use the context of the artist’s troubled past as an incentive for potential buyers to seek out these pieces and pay high dollar for them. Dease’s spirit is none too pleased with this, as his soul seems to live on in his art, which suddenly seems to come to life to punish all those that have used the art for selfish needs.

Velvet Buzzsaw film via Netflix Media Center
Velvet Buzzsaw film via Netflix Media Center /

It should be stated that while this is the main conflict of Velvet Buzzsaw, the actual horror of the situation slowly builds throughout the film’s runtime. During all of this, we as viewers witness the dynamic of the characters within the film and how each person approaches the beauty of art. Characters will often look at the art pieces with a smug arrogance as they try to “evaluate” its artistry and importance, most definitely a parallel to how art critics view their “subjects” in real life too.

“No originality. No courage.”

Though the film will often make real-life parallels with the inclusion of snobby critics and such, Velvet Buzzsaw is mostly filled with characters that operate as stereotypes of the art world, often bordering on parody with how ridiculous they can act.

Take one of the film’s central characters, Morf Vandewalt (a hilariously goofy and smug Jake Gyllenhaal), as a prime example of this. Morf is the definition of a pretentious critic, gladly offering stinging critiques at anything he can think of, as if his words truly mean that much to him. This kind of character would normally be unbearable to watch, but Gyllenhaal’s campy charm and explosive energy at the film’s crucial moments make the character much more digestible in the long run.

Velvet Buzzsaw stands to thrive on the performances of Gyllenhaal, Russo, and the limited, but fun inclusions of Hereditary powerhouse, Toni Collette, and Blindspotting stand-out, Daveed Diggs. Collette hams up her role as one of the main art curators of the gallery, fully embracing her own cruel nature and stance on profiting from the pain of art. Incredibly unlikable, yet very watchable in the hands of the immensely talented Collette.

Netflix, Velvet Buzzsaw
Velvet Buzzsaw film via Netflix Media Center /

Equally great, but more grounded in his execution, is Daveed Diggs’ Damrish, a humble and soft-spoken artist who is currently in the middle of a deal with Haze to showcase his art. Diggs comes across as the only character that seemingly appreciates art for what it is: expression through the lens of creativity.

Diggs’ restrained and nuanced performance is a stark contrast to the colorful and animated performances of the rest of the cast, further dividing the lines between the real and fake of the art world. It’s not a particularly meaty role, but Diggs’ collected charisma elevates the strength of the performance nonetheless.

Purposely hollow?

It’s quite intriguing that a film like Velvet Buzzsaw, which takes place a high-end art gallery, often looks rather plain and generic in its visual presentation. The attention to blocking is clearly there, but there isn’t a big incentive to actually draw attention to its own artistry, which I feel might have been on purpose. Whenever some of the art is shown onscreen, there’s extra attention paid to its stylized presentation and the art pieces often come to be the most beautiful subjects in the whole frame.

Contrast this with the admittedly flat presentation of the humans in the film and it suddenly seems as though the film is actively trying to make itself look shallow and, dare I say, ugly. One could read this as a reflection of the characters’ hollow cores, only concerning themselves with the surface-level pleasures in life while believing themselves to be much deeper in contrast. Whether this was Dan Gilroy’s purpose with the cinematography is anyone’s guess, but the point of showcasing the hollowness of some of the character within the art world stands strong nonetheless.

This may lead to the film’s first half being a bit tedious and boring to look at, as there is hardly any chance for the film’s visuals and story to pop out at the viewer and say something truly profound. Maybe beyond the film’s obvious critique of shallow criticism and greed, Velvet Buzzsaw might not have much to say? Maybe it does, but we shouldn’t look too hard to try and decipher what it truly means? The film might not make a profound statement on the world of art, but the delivery of its message alone might make the trip worth it.

Velvet Buzzsaw film via Netflix Media Center
Velvet Buzzsaw film via Netflix Media Center /

The film is not one to shy away from carnage and that’s something that tends to define the film’s second half, trying to balance itself with the social commentary being showcased. The violence and various methods in which the characters meet their ends is essentially at the forefront of the film, replacing nuance with comical absurdity and hilariously over-the-top acting. Velvet Buzzsaw joyously juggles stinging social commentary with Final Destination-esque horror to craft a somewhat uneven, but ultimately fun and bloody ride.

It feels strange to try and critique Velvet Buzzsaw because, at the end of the day, it could very well be completely critic-proof (literally!). But this film is so in-your-face about its disdain for snobby critics and shallow art regulars, so the point stands stronger here. My rating of the film, at the end of the day, is simply my opinion and, no matter what I say, I can’t take anything away from the hard work of the filmmakers and cast & crew.

The art is complete. What can I do about it?

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Final Verdict: 7/10 (in my eyes)

Velvet Buzzsaw is available to stream worldwide on Netflix right now! Have you seen it? If you have, what did you think? If you haven’t seen it, do you want to? Sound off in the comments below!