Dan Gilroy made a splash with Nightcrawler, a thriller about a deranged man who goes to outrageous, amoral lengths to get a juicy news story. It is not an especially fresh idea – movies about manipulative journalists are almost as old as the movies themselves – but there was an energy and wickedness to it that helped smooth its edges. Now Gilroy revisits similar territory with Velvet Buzzsaw, another film that takes the piss out of an easy target. Instead of bloodthirsty local journalism, this one looks at the bloodthirsty world of modern art. If there is less of that energy and wickedness this time around, it is because Gilroy replaces Nightcrawler’s twisted logic with metaphors so obvious they would laughed out of freshman art seminars.
To his credit, Gilroy’s shrewdly sees the art world as an incestuous cocktail of journalists, professionals, patrons, and creators. His entry point is the art critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal), an effete kingmaker who prances around like Sex in the City’s version of Jerry Saltz. After an underwhelming report from a Miami fashion show, Morf heads home to Los Angeles where he finally sees paintings that fascinate him. In fact, the entire art community is enraptured by these brooding, violent paintings, which were discovered posthumously by the artist’s neighbor (that happens to work in a gallery). As the valuation for the paintings skyrocket, there is a quiet war among who gets to sell them, but then strange things start to happen. The art literally starts to exact its bloody revenge.
The film’s strongest moments have a specificity to them. Toni Collette plays a character who transitions from a gallery worker, to someone acting like a go-between for rich collectors. Frankly, it never occurred to me that the superrich would hire people to research what art has the most value, but since art is effectively an investment with aesthetic appeal, it should also have its own stockbrokers. Most of the time, however, the film goes after the low-hanging fruit, like John Malkovich’s turn as an artist whose sobriety led to a creative dry spell. At least Malkovich’s character leads to an interesting thought experiment: he also starred in the satire Art School Confidential, so maybe that film and Velvet Buzzsaw are in the same middlebrow universe.
Gilroy films this subculture like a glossy furniture magazine. Many of the interiors are wonders of postmodern architecture, with every angle and piece in perfect symmetry. The sterile production and garish, oversaturated cinematography have a purpose: art dealers and critics have no room for messiness. It is a simple point, one that Gilroy hammers home again and again. As if we were uncertain about the contempt he has for his characters, there are a handful of nasty scenes where the characters literally fall victim to the art they seek to commodify. The tension between art and commerce is as old as the Renaissance, so the anthropomorphized, bloodthirsty paintings and installations have only slightly more subtext than the Final Destination series.
It is hardly a surprise that Gyllenhaal’s performance rises above the material. At first, he seems like Gilroy’s most obvious target. Critics are easy to mock, and there is arguably no profession that’s less essential to the greater good. But as the film continues, Morf becomes Velvet Buzzsaw’s moral center: he is not merely a snob for the fun of it, but a curious man who cares about aesthetics. The final act becomes a thriller of sorts, with Morf trying to stop the sale of the paintings before the art consumes yet another victim. There are no real stakes here – the premise abandoned its stakes long ago – but Morf’s arc is the closest thing the film has to any emotional anchor.
Velvet Buzzsaw is a genre hybrid, and all its dabbling is halfhearted. Parts of it are funny, yet there are few lines or gags that will inspire a big laugh. Parts of it are scary, even gruesome, yet they are filmed in a way to diminish any sense of surprise. The cumulative effect is oddly milquetoast, considering that most modern art relies on shock for its intended effect, or any response at all. This is a film that’s perfectly suited to Netflix; the only way it could provoke a strong reaction would be if audiences were forced to buy a ticket. Not coincidentally, this is also the difference between browsing Pinterest or Etsy, and a trip to an actual museum.