Velvet Buzzsaw has more things it wants to say about criticism than it actually says about art. At the same time, the film managed to get a bit messy with regards to commentary on the world of art galleries and consumerism.
The film, which hits Netflix Feb. 1, follows art critic Morf Vanderwalt (Jake Gyllenhaal), the type of guy who can make or break an entire career in the span of a single column. We first meet him at an art show in Miami where he runs into gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), a former punk rock musician. She has made quite the 180-degree turn, having gone from “anarchist to purveyor of good taste.” Lurking in the distance is Haze’s determined associate, Josefina (Zawe Ashton) who will do whatever it takes to get ahead no matter the consequences.
After the Miami show, Josefina finds her job with Rhodora on the line after coming in late again. Her excuse this time is that one of her neighbors, Dease, happened to die that morning. Later, once she learns that he didn’t have any surviving family, she checks out his apartment where she discovers a treasure trove of art Dease has handed over the year. Josefina decides to take the artwork and try to sell it.
But no one knows who Dease is, or was, making it difficult to get the Los Angeles art world interested in his work. But things begin to change when museum curator Gretchen (Toni Collette) wants in and demands that an art museum put Dease’s work on display immediately if they want to do business. Morf, however, wants to know more about the man behind the art and goes from critic to investigator to learn about who Dease actually is. In his pursuit, the film reveals itself as more than the satirical thriller it is on paper. It quickly becomes a horrifying slasher with a high death toll. All because Josefina violated the wishes of Dease.
It’s unclear what the Dan Gilroy film is trying to say about art, if anything. But there is substantial commentary on the act of criticism, of art or otherwise. In one scene, for example, Morf and a female on-looker are debating a piece of art on the wall in which they see very different things. Ever the cynical one, Morf doesn’t look at the piece positively. The woman then tells him that a prior negative review crushed the artist and they ended up in the hospital. On doing his job, Morf says at one point that “a bad review is better than sinking into the glut of anonymity.”
Gilroy shows some ambition in tackling the art world and consumerism, but Velvet Buzzsaw quickly turns into Night of the Deadly Art Museum. Even though the film may be a satire with many laughs throughout, there are more scenes that qualify as horror than an outright thriller.