Review – Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

by Armando Vanegas

First off, what the fuck was this supposed to be? I get that it’s supposed to be a commentary on the art world and a horror movie at the same time, but I literally don’t get what I’m supposed to get from it outside of that. There’s so many plot threads and downtime in between all the crazy parts that it causes the movie to have an inconsistent tone. Am I supposed to laugh or be scared or just think? Velvet Buzzsaw is a nearly 2 hour cocktease of a movie that has some interesting ideas, but it wants to tackle too much, and really ends up doing none of it very well. I understand the main idea though. There’s a lot of jaded pretentious art people. I got this right away and there was nothing new that the smartest comedies to even the most bottom of the barrel satires haven’t already done communicating that same idea. Art people are pretentious. It takes a large bulk of its run-time making sure we get that as we’re seeing a lot of these characters just living their life functioning around this world.

For the first half, it wasn’t totally gelling with me because it was just boring people talk, but I think that was part of the point. Still, it was the most interesting part to me for at the least the first half hour because it would’ve made a pretty okay introduction to the characters. But then it’s like the first act never stops and then my interest started waning. It felt like a clever way to start peeling the onion of this world and the characters that inhabited it until you realize how thinly sculpted it all was. A lot of people in this environment are just so self-indulgent and self-involved that they don’t even react when paintings are coming to life and killing people. That’s why I came to see this. There’s so much opportunity for comedy and satire and the movie disappointingly plays it straight for the most part. But then there are some moments like when a person gets their arm cut off and the reaction is a small snippet of what could’ve been. But never mind about that, let’s get back to John Malkovich ranting about the modern art world because that’s what you guys wanted. I get that he’s supposed to be the antithesis of what a lot of the characters stand for and I feel like the movie is making the point that he’s supposed the best representation of how an artist should live their life, how they should live their life when they’re relatively content with who they are, and not on how others perceive them. Again, I get these ideas and Malkovich is good, but this doesn’t keep the movie from dragging so hard at these segments. The most compelling storyline and the one the movie mostly sticks deals with an art agent named Josephina (well played by Zawe Ashton), who’s employed by Rhodora, the owner of an LA art gallery (a solid but too reserved Rene Russo), who dreams of being an art curator. Josephina finds her breakthrough after finding a bunch of paintings created by Ventril Dease, a long deceased artist. Rhodora decides to exploit his work and as a result, they all come to life and decide to kill a bunch of these characters. Sounds intriguing, right? Never mind, let’s make this a commentary on the art scene merging with capitalism and have boring scenes with people talking about deals some more.

Jake Gyllenhaal as Morf, a pretentious bisexual art critic, is probably the closest the movie comes to having a well defined character. Being that he’s a critic and I’m a critic made me sort of relate to him. He’s someone who’s gotten too self absorbed because of his job and as a result, he doesn’t really know himself anymore. But the reflective moments I had towards his character came a day way after this movie and it made appreciate what the movie was trying to do if they had just made him the main character and cut out all the other fat surrounding him. I started thinking about how sometimes I’m so ready to criticize something and it’s easy for me to feel jaded to witness any kind of art and not really just judge on its own merits other than our own prejudices that we bring to it. I was very entertained by him and he seems to represent what I most wanted out of the movie. He seemed to really get how weird the movie was. Unfortunately, he’s just a small part of the ensemble and the movie really suffers when he’s not on screen. Josephina as his love interest was okay as a seemingly decent person until the paintings start selling, then she starts changing her tune. I feel like they tried to make her the moral compass in a way but that goes away after she buys into the more corrupt parts of the art industry. Rene Russo was fine as Rhodora, who was the antagonist, even though she’s relegated to be a one-dimensional character. The title of the movie has something to do with her being a former member in a punk band called “Velvet Buzzsaw” years ago. They keep hitting the nail on the head about this with the fact that she has two tattoos from her time in the band. How they keep presenting it is supposed to reflect how she used to be this badass and now that she’s sold out and become the man. Look how awesome and clever it is that we keep showing these tattoos for symbolism. Isn’t so clever and smart? I get it so hard. I got it from Jump Street. You don’t have to keep shoving it in my face. Natalia Dyer is good as Coco, the only decent human being here that’s essentially a millennial version of Gabriel Byrne in Miller’s Crossing as she keeps having to go from receptionist job to receptionist job. This is a cute running gag, but she could’ve had more to do.

This was such a disappointment considering that it’s written and directed by Dan Gilroy, who also did Nightcrawler. The fact that I realized that it was on Netflix right now made me think we’re in the right timeline and we should be grateful that we’re being blessed with what’s being presented to us before our very eyes. But in the right timeline, this movie probably would’ve actually been good. I was so thrilled when I saw a trailer and I had high hopes. I mean, it’s a movie that exists and there were good ideas swimming around there, but something just didn’t click for me. It felt too all over the place but yet it was not enough. The horror aspect is the most promising route the movie goes on, but Gilroy couldn’t even do that right. The fact that it’s seems to want to be a prestige movie doesn’t mesh well with the early 2000’s Screen Gems/Dimension Films horror movie aesthetic this clearly wants to lean into. Even having one of the best cinematographers in the business, Robert Elswit, intentionally slumming it to match this aesthetic is smart if this is the point. All it’s missing is Creed or The Offspring on the soundtrack. The kills aren’t even that good when they happen. I wanted to love this because of the people involved, but it didn’t do anything for me. I told myself that this year that I wasn’t going to finish things that are bad. However, this made me break that resolution because I was really trying to engage with it. While it’s not hard to sit through, a lot of it just did nothing for me. It didn’t need to have this emotional resonance to it, but I wanted to be entertained. It didn’t say anything that wasn’t already said in better movies and shows. Ultimately, I just felt disappointed and underwhelmed. Still, it’s very different and original. A lot of movies aren’t like it. I want to believe that this is trying to be a troll movie that wants to troll us with a point. If so, then maybe it was a success or a failure. To me, I’ll split the difference and say it was an ambitious failure. Even still, it was not a movie for me, but it’s good if it’s the movie that Dan Gilroy and the rest of his team wanted to make. In the long run, it will resonate with someone because there’s always something for everyone. Also, it’s good for the industry because we need weird stuff to get made and distributed to the public to keep movies as a whole interesting.

I’m giving Velvet Buzzsaw a 2 out of 5 Hairpieces!

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