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Netflix’s Velvet Buzzsaw feels like Robert Altman’s Final Destination

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It builds a compelling world, then burns it down

Photo: Claudette Barius / Netflix

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

Horror films often pack their character rosters with terrible people, as a hedge against the audience feeling too much empathy as those characters get bumped off one by one. Viewers might find horror a little less cathartic and a little more depressing if they actually liked every eviscerated victim on-screen, and were fruitlessly rooting for them, then watching them ignominiously lose their lives. So in horror movies with any significant body count (unlike, something like Get Out or The Visit, which focus on one or two desperate, sympathetic protagonists), it’s become fairly standard to make sure the early cannon fodder consists of people who’ve marked themselves as worthy of death via selfish, reckless, or outright dumb behavior.

The Netflix thriller Velvet Buzzsaw, written and directed by Dan Gilroy (a Best Screenplay nominee for his directorial debut, Nightcrawler), isn’t at all a standard horror film. But it does lean hard into this horror dynamic. It starts out looking like a smirking satire of the fine-art world, with conniving gallery owners, an arrogant critic, various grasping artists, and many more comically unpleasant stereotypes all circling each other, looking for the next hot fad, or any other way to pull ahead in the business while stroking their own egos. Then one of those schemers lays hands on an artistic goldmine, and the rush to profit begins. Unfortunately for everyone involved, her find comes with an impressively powerful fatal curse that begins to punish everyone it can reach.

What’s the genre?

It starts off as an ensemble-driven art-world satire, the kind of overstuffed, top-down look at a scene that Christopher Guest tackled through improv comedy in films like Waiting for Guffman and A Mighty Wind, and that Robert Altman handled a little more seriously (though still with a satirical edge) in movies from Nashville to A Prairie Home Companion. Like those films, Velvet Buzzsaw is full of acidly overbright, larger-than-life figures who hold particular parts of their insular creative world up for mockery. Unlike those films, Velvet Buzzsaw takes a sharp lurch into the arena of supernatural horror.

What’s it about?

Rene Russo stars as Rhodora Haze, a predatory Los Angeles gallery owner who represents some of the city’s hottest talents, and is constantly looking for more. Among her current stable: well-established but flagging painter Piers (John Malkovich) and up-and-coming creator Damrish (Daveed Diggs), who’s abandoned his old artists’ collective in favor of big profits and international exposure. Rhodora’s employees include meek Michigan ex-pat Coco (Natalia Dyer), scruffy handyman Bryson (Billy Magnussen), who boasts about his own artistic cred to anyone who looks naïve enough to listen, and Josephina (Zawe Ashton), an ambitious, hardened gallery assistant who’s reeling after learning that her artist boyfriend is cheating on her. Out on the edge of their circle: competing gallery owner Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge), who’s trying to poach Piers from Rhodora, and Gretchen (Toni Collette), a deceptively friendly, utterly ruthless museum curator who ditches her job and becomes an art-hunter for rich folks looking to buy art works for the prestige and the investment.

And floating around all of them is Jake Gyllenhaal as Morf Vandewalt, a critic whose work commands enough clout that people buzz around him, trying to earn his favor, draw his attention to their clients, or even just get a hint of what his next review might look like, in case there’s a way to profit from it. Morf is obsessed with Josephina, and swoops in the second it looks like she’s available, but she’s quickly distracted when her upstairs neighbor dies, and his apartment turns out to be crammed with spectacular art that transfixes everyone who looks at it. Given the lack of any legal heir, Josephina, Morf, and Rhodora are all fully ready to lie about how they acquired his work, and take full advantage of its instant popularity. But the artist wanted his work destroyed upon his death, and when it starts turning up in gallery shows and museum exhibits, the situation gets bloody.

Photo: Claudette Barius / Netflix

What’s it really about?

Who really owns art, and how that differs from who’s profiting off of it at any given moment. The dead artist, Vetril Dease, seems most directly inspired by famed outsider artist Henry Darger, who similarly died alone without heirs, in an apartment stuffed with hundreds of artworks and thousands of pages of his fiction writing. Like Darger, the fictional Dease had a troubled, traumatic past, and lived as a recluse while working a blue-collar job. Unlike Darger, though, Dease apparently has the mystic wherewithal to keep people from turning his private work into a greed-driven feeding frenzy.

Dan Gilroy’s first directorial project, 2014’s acclaimed Nightcrawler, took a similar tack in a much darker way. In that film, Gyllenhaal plays a freelance photojournalist who chases violent events around Los Angeles, competing to be first on the scene and to get the most graphic and thrilling shots, even if that means breaking the law. Where that film was dim and grimy, Velvet Buzzsaw fills the screen with sunlight and vividly colored art. But both films are still LA underworld stories, about the extremes people are willing to go to in order to rake power and money out of their chosen hustle.

And both films explore the question of ownership — Nightcrawler asks whether there’s any difference between criminals and the media outlets that profit over them, but it also questions who owns the news, and whether any amount of public good or public hunger for scandal justifies unethical behavior from journalists. With Velvet Buzzsaw, Gilroy similarly asks whether the hunger for new art, fresh faces, and good investments justifies going against an artist’s wishes. Dease wanted his work destroyed upon his death, but as far as Josephina and her accomplices are concerned, his wishes are immaterial. So the complicated question at the film’s heart is, if an artist wants to withhold his world-shaking creations even after he’s gone, does he have the right to?

Photo: Claudette Barius / Netflix

Is it good?

Velvet Buzzsaw is a messy movie, and not just in the sense that Gilroy ends up painting a room with blood at one point. Where Nightcrawler felt viciously propulsive and focused on Gyllenhaal, his escalating crimes, and his laser-intent interest in power, Buzzsaw sprawls, with no clear focal point early on, and a too-obvious focal point once Dease’s superpowered revenge kicks into gear and the bodies start piling up. As with so many other supernatural-horror films, the story gets pretty programmatic once it becomes clear that there’s no real counter for a magic, murderous dead recluse, and that Gilroy is mostly interested in lengthy setpieces where selfish people die in protracted, ironic, art-inflected ways.

But the film’s Final Destination elements — the grinding inevitability of the deaths, the archly comic tone around them, the “no mercy, no escape” aesthetic — are so much less interesting than what Gilroy does in the early going, in laying out a cutthroat world where creation is a commodity. Films often mock critics as pretentious (as in M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water), inhumanly dour and judgmental (Brad Bird’s Ratatouille), and power-hungry (Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman), but Gilroy finds a little of all the above in Morf, while still letting him come across as deeply engaged with the art he’s critiquing. He’s prissy and self-centered, and the way he casually discards his live-in lover when he sees Josephina as available could use some more narrative examination, and possibly a consequence or two. But Gyllenhaal makes him a forceful, compelling figure, even when he isn’t a sympathetic one. Morf knows what he wants, and chases it without scruples, but he’s still a much lighter figure than his equivalent in Nightcrawler.

But most of the film’s other hardened, surface-obsessed uber-strivers come across as casual caricatures, with little to communicate about the art world or the work that drives it. Collette is an enjoyable screen presence as she swans around laying down the law with her old museum workers and her new clients, wielding the promise of multimillion-dollar art purchases like a spiked club. Ashton is a mildly sympathetic figure, as she tries to get out from under her boss’ spiked heel. But most of the main characters are one-note villains with no apparent life, outside of abusing employees and racking up sales.

Which is why their reaction to Dease’s art is so fascinating. Everyone who looks at his paintings instantly recognizes their artistic worth before pivoting into their financial value. His paintings move them emotionally, but Gilroy doesn’t spend enough time considering why, or how their engagement in his work changes the story. A throwaway scene reveals that Dease used his own blood in his paints, which may be meant as an excuse for his posthumous connection with them, but may also explain their magical power over people. Or maybe he was just an inspiring talent. If Gilroy knows the difference, he isn’t putting it on-screen.

And that’s where he misses the chance to comment meaningfully on his subject, and to make Velvet Buzzsaw as memorable and powerful as Nightcrawler. Gilroy doesn’t seem to have a coherent direction for his questions about artists’ rights, and whether art can be so creative and moving that people’s right to see it trumps the artist’s right to destroy it. He heavily implies that virtually everyone in the art world is corrupt, venal, and shallow — but then when they come face to face with something real, he doesn’t examine what that means, he just kills them for coveting it. Much like Dease did, he builds a compelling world, only so he can burn it down. That may be his right, but there’s a sense that Velvet Buzzsaw could have been so much more than a mildly comic morality tale and haunted-object horror where bad people meet bad ends. The setting Gilroy creates here is so much more engaging than what he does with it.

What should it be rated?

At least a PG-13, for sexual situations and gory mayhem. The MPAA might go to a full R, given some of the more grotesque imagery, but it’s a little hard to take even the bloodiest death seriously, given the film’s deliberately comic elements.

How can I actually watch it?

In the US, Velvet Buzzsaw hits Netflix on February 1st.