“Velvet Buzzsaw”: Film Review | Sundance 2019

Rene Russo and Jake Gyllenhaal appear in Velvet Buzzsaw by Dan Gilroy, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Claudette Barius.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.
Rene Russo and Jake Gyllenhaal in Velvet Buzzsaw; Photo Courtesy of Claudette Barius/Netflix

Dan Girloy’s most recent teaming with Jake Gyllenhaal is a gory, dark satire that aims to understand the fine-art world through the lens of an auteur trying to understand his own industry.

Off the heels of the success of the neo-noir thriller that takes place in Los Angeles’s streets, Dan Gilroy follows up his breakout hit with another bloody-satirical look at another important part of LA Culture: the art-world. Gilroy targets all the players involved in the machine of high-priced art – the artists themselves, the gallery owners, the agents, the clients and notably, the critics – making an important case that the more we idolize and commodify art that comes from passionate, and especially dark places, the more we risk suffering as a consequence of it. In the end, the vultures of the art world get their own bones picked clean.

The mysterious painter that is at the heart of the story is a parodic fantasy of a tortured creator. All his works are vivid, frightening depictions of violence and tragedy and captures the eye of anyone taking its beauty in. After the artist dies, his pieces are found stacked in his dank apartment and eventually Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo) gets her hands on the late collector’s work. Haze’s employees, Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge) amplify the caricatures that the media tends to portray for artistic critics and collectors. They try to stop anyone and everyone from getting their hands on the rare collection such as Piers (John Malkovich), a client of Haze’s, Damrish (Daveed Diggs), an up-and-coming artist who becomes jealous of the works that Josephina, the assistant (Zawe Ashton) stumbles upon. Gilroy pushes the comic depths further by exploiting trendy success by the characterization of agent Gretchen (Toni Collette) who basically blackmails the museum into staging a show of the artwork.

Art and commerce aren’t merely intertwined; they feed off each other in unpredictable and dismaying ways. It seems as if Gilroy has a few complaints about the state of Hollywood – if you were to swap out a few characters’ jobs then it could be really parodying the film industry or any other creative field really where the debut and creation of new work made without industry interference and with unbridled passion is seen as potentially paradigm-shifting.

The film is not a subtle movie at all and takes interesting turns in its satire. Most of the characters feel like caricatures from an anime convention – the costumes are a delight thanks to Isis Mussenden and Trish Summerville and they brilliantly come to life in Robert Elswit’s art pop lighting – and they all seem to be on the balance between self-parody and personal expression. At times when the story is dull and Gilroy’s commentary exhausts itself, the actors manage to drag the movie across the finish line and several of them enjoy some fantastically goofy death scenes along the way. While Nightcrawler was about an ambulance-chasing journalist with an eye for ghoulish crime scenes, Gilroy’s recent work takes a theatrical approach to goriness much further.

The film looks at the art world through a funhouse mirror. It creates caricatures of art-world people in which they all need external validation and no one determines their own value at the end of the day. A challenge of writing satire is that building up any real story stakes is difficult if no one character is human enough. Gyllenhaal is the only one that seems to seems to have a bit of humaneness in him as his character begins to question the overall commercial excesses of the industry but everyone seems to exist as chopping blocks and visual beauty. In the end, Velvet Buzzsaw is a soulless piece of art about soullessness of art; but that doesn’t mean Gilroy couldn’t have a little fun proving this point.

JAKKAWI: B-

“Velvet Buzzsaw” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in the Premieres Section. At press time, the film was released by Netflix on February 1, 2019. It is currently available for streaming on Netflix.

Official Trailer for Velvet Buzzsaw; all rights owned by Netflix

Director(s): Dan Gilroy.
Screenwriter(s): Dan Gilroy.
Music by: Marco Beltrami.
Cinematography: Robert Elswit.
Production: Netflix.
Distributor: Netflix.
With: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Collette, Zawe Ashton, Tom Sturridge, Natalia Dyer, Daveed Diggs, Billy Magnusson, John Malkovich.

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