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'Velvet Buzzsaw' (2019) Review

Chris is a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and a writer/contributor at Bounding into Comics and God Hates Geeks.

The official artwork for Dan Gilroy's, "Velvet Buzzsaw."

The official artwork for Dan Gilroy's, "Velvet Buzzsaw."

Ensorcelled By Dangerous Art

The premise for Velvet Buzzsaw isn’t an entirely unique one, but it’s exquisitely crafted by writer and director Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) in a way that caters to the contemporary art world. The art business is cutthroat even to those who are lucky enough to have connections. Whether you’re an owner like Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), an agent like Josephina (Zawe Ashton), or a critic like Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal), art is generally utilized as a platform to benefit an individual’s ego or reputation in Velvet Buzzsaw while the repercussions of pushing or condemning certain artists or the impact of a negative review are rarely, if ever, considered.

A man named Vetril Dease, who has no friends or family, dies in Josephina’s building, but he was hording a ton of personal artwork that he insisted on being destroyed upon his death. Instead Josephina steals all of his works and suddenly Dease is an overnight sensation marketed as an artist with a limited output. The art world becomes obsessed with Dease as rival galleries and envious agents are dying to get their hands on anything Dease related. But the exposure, financial success, and superfluous greed ignite a supernatural assault that targets anyone who has benefited from Dease’s discovery.

Rene Russo and Jake Gyllenhaal as Rhodora Haze and Morf Vandewalt in, "Velvet Buzzsaw."

Rene Russo and Jake Gyllenhaal as Rhodora Haze and Morf Vandewalt in, "Velvet Buzzsaw."

The basic takeaway from Velvet Buzzsaw is that art imitates life and the supernatural horror film questions whether or not there’s a point to beautiful art if no one is around to see it. Dan Gilroy has stated that an artist investing their soul in their works was the main concept that inspired the film. What’s interesting is that nearly every character in the film is so self-absorbed that they either never see their fate coming or only bear witness to it when it’s already too late.

There’s also a devotion to remaining current, trendy, and popular in Velvet Buzzsaw. Piers (John Malkovich) represents an artist who has lived through the rise of being a successful artist at one point, but is now mentally stuck. He gave up drinking and has gotten older and his output as an artist has been lackluster at best. Meanwhile, Dease is the next big thing. No one knew anything about him and he becomes this mysterious and enigmatic overnight sensation. Meanwhile, Damrish (Daveed Diggs, Blindspotting) represents an alternative to Dease. He's young, relatively unknown, and on the brink of making it big, but he suddenly takes a backseat once Dease fever hits. Velvet Buzzsaw is essentially the story of Zoolander with male modeling being swapped for contemporary art.

If you’ve ever considered yourself a writer or an artist of any kind, then the impact of Morf’s reviews has on the art world as well the madness that comes with a rising artist will likely have more of an effect on you than the average viewer. The power of a critic having the ability to sway an audience one way or the other based solely on their opinion can be the making or breaking point of a successful attraction. Art typically relies on word of mouth anyway, but the power of a large audience can drive individuals to or cause them to stay away from an exhibit. As a critic, it’s weird to think about since grasping the concept that people actually read your work is mind-boggling the majority of the time. But the fact that your words can inspire ones actions based on what you think is both inspiring and terrifying.

The film touches on art not being able to thrive unless there’s an audience for it, but it also teases that sometimes it can actually do the exact opposite and flourish when no one is around. Rhodora softly states that, “All art is dangerous,” and it’s intriguing to see the hive mentality and almost cannibalistic side of being a part of a popular artist’s rise while certain artists are able to foresee where such hypnotic and obsessive behavior is heading and distance themselves from it while they still have the opportunity. Art may be beautiful, but it’s financially draining and obsessively draining. The fact that it makes most collectors feel entitled and snooty is just a toxic side effect.

Daveed Diggs and John Malkovich as artists Damrish and Piers in, "Velvet Buzzsaw."

Daveed Diggs and John Malkovich as artists Damrish and Piers in, "Velvet Buzzsaw."

Velvet Buzzsaw doesn’t have a deep aesthetic and it’s typically presented as a basic and formulaic supernatural horror film. It’s a predictable film (especially if you’ve watched the trailer), but it does have more to say than certain people are giving it credit for. Selfishness and greed are rewarded with brutal deaths in Velvet Buzzsaw and there’s a connection to cats that either isn’t fully realized or is hidden better than it lets on. If artists invest their souls into their work, then Velvet Buzzsaw is a representation of that artwork claiming what rightfully belongs to it. The character names in this film are unusually extraordinary and Jake Gyllenhaal continues to showcase this passionate charisma that is overlooked by many. It’s understandable why many would dislike Velvet Buzzsaw, but from a personal viewpoint it’s kind of a broad stroke of sloppy, unadulterated genius.

© 2019 Chris Sawin