Dan Gilroy’s third feature as director, Velvet Buzzsaw, has the all strengths of his first, Nightcrawler, and flaws of his second, Roman J. Israel, Esq. It’s a pulpy, viciously entertaining hodgepodge of a film, benefitting from bountifully thrilling conceits but suffering from the lapses of a frustratingly potholed script. At every turn, an a-lister is to be found revelling in roles that demand performative excess and there is great joy to be had in witnessing the ascent of Zawe Ashton to the big time. If only the script were smarter, this would likely be an all-time horror classic.
In the execution of its visual horrors alone, Velvet Buzzsaw soars. Gilroy’s script brims with venomous innovation and boasts a handful of ingenious ideas. Indeed, more than one of the increasingly gruesome fates met by his characters clings to the mind long after the credits roll. Perhaps the problem is that there are too many ideas? There is, perhaps, too much of everything here. Not content with perfecting the riotous notion that art mightn’t be so passive as one would think, Gilroy challenges the art world itself with a satirical bite in the vogue of David Frankel’s Devil Wears Prada. Whilst much of the satire works every bit as well as the horror – in one instance, art lovers admire the sight of a bloody, brutalised corpse in the centre of a gallery, believing it to be part of the installation – there are times in which the overlap distracts and strikes as a tonal binary for the worse.
Jake Gyllenhaal unites these disparate strands as fabulously named critic Morf Vandewalt. A feared influencer on the LA art scene, Morf is an exquisite creation, composed of grandiloquent mannerisms and liltingly affected voice. With his and fitness trainer Ed’s (Sedale Threatt Jr.) relationship on the wain, Morf finds himself drawn – inexplicably, it must be said – to Josephina (Ashton), a put-upon employee of sharp-tongued gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo). When Josephina discovers the body of an old neighbour, stone cold on the floor of her apartment building, she stumbles also upon his expansive art collection: an abstract expressionist myriad of trauma, styled after Francis Bacon. Morf’s interest is piqued – and he’s not the only one. While the film’s title refers illusively to the punk rock band Haze was a member of prior to her career in art, there’s deliberate semantic resonance in the flames these ghastly paintings fan.
Truth be told, Gilroy plays his hand far too soon for suspense to set in. Beats of Hitchcockian thrill are voided by early reveals and a slasher sensibility robs the film of its semblance of intellectuality. To this end, the balance is awkward. Loose narrative ends and vague anomalies are so prevalent here that they stand to make Rosebud seem blatant. It is as though Gilroy came to the conclusion, during his edit, that supernatural undertones are enough to explain plot holes and deviance. They are not and the result is frustration. It is hard to imagine any viewer jumping an instantaneous rewatch to analyse the meaning of the random fires that sporadically spout from the paintings or work out why it is that Morf’s relationships are so hard to believe.
For all the burgeoning creativity at play here, the pervading sense is that Gilroy’s is not a well written script. Heightened cameos by Toni Colette, John Malkovich and David Diggs are fun but come ladened by risible dialogic dead notes. ‘I am not just a man of primitive skills,’ says Malkovich with admirable conviction, ‘this shit talks to me.’ Only occasionally does the satire truly hit and the denouement feels too tidy to be satisfying.
Carried away by his own ingenuity, Gilroy leaps excitedly from brilliant concept to brilliant concept, with only passing regard for all that falls in between. The result is devilishly entertaining but ultimately shallow. In that sense, at least, Velvet Buzzsaw nails the contemporary art market.