Mike’s Review: Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

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Directed by Dan Gilroy.

ATMOSfx! Woo!
The art world is a tough nut to crack.  The politics, the sexuality, the fortunes, the fame, the critics, the notoriety, the legacy — oh, yeah, and we almost forgot, the art.  Art is often a vessel for missing elements in society, wanting, longing, and a respite from the day to day hum/drum attributes of life.  Art can subjugate the mundane and keep our darker and more horrifying desires at bay.  That is, when art is obeyed and respected.  When it’s not…watch out. 

Velvet Buzzsaw, a 2019 release from Netflix, explores this exact space and posits a very simple premise:  what happens when art is really just a money-grubbin’ exploitation device?  Trust us, it’s not pretty, but simultaneously, it ain’t that great either.  Velvet Buzzsaw follows a number of different characters in the high-profile Los Angeles art scene.  There’s Jake Gyllenhaal as Morf Vandewalt the sexually confused and highly perturbed art critic.  There’s Rene Russo as Rhodora Haze the domineering former punk rock starlet turned renowned art gallery owner.  There’s Toni Collette as Gretchen the public employee art curator turned hot-shit private art curator.  There’s Zawe Ashton as Josephina the low-level submissive to Rhodora Haze and all-around famed-starved imposter.  Last but not least, there’s John Malkovich as Piers the struggling/aging artist with an impressive resume, but who’s plumb out of ideas.  

While all these art luminaries operate in the same general universe,Velvet Buzzsaw initially follows Josephina the low-level submissive who encounters a dying older gentleman in her decidedly low-rent living situation.  The day following his death, she’s informed by a local locksmith working on the building that the old man, Mr. Dease, was a) something of a hermit, b) something of a hoarder, c) a profoundly skilled and prolific artist, and d) an artist who specifically requested that ALL of his art be destroyed upon his death. Wanting desperately to burst in the cash-rich limelight of the art world, Josephine effectively theives all of Mr. Dease’s art.  All of it. 

Turns out, Josephina made the right call.  The art world loses its collectively minds over the mysterious and mesmerizing Dease art collection.  The art world claws come out as everyone clamors for a piece of this morbid art pie.  Jake Gyllenhaal as Morf Vandewalt begins to research the peculiar backstory behind the dark and enigmatic Mr. Dease.  He learns that the now-deceased Dease might just have set his mom and sister on fire — with the help of his dad.  He might have suffered decades of horrifying abuse at the hands his dad, and he might have also set his dad on fire.  Morf’s research also yeilds the fact that many of Dease’s shading techniques within his paintings all employee blood…HUMAN BLOOD!  

The goofy and satirical cadre of art collectors, curators, wannabes, and critics tries to make sense of his art work, all the while succumbing to a death-by-numbers routine where the art swallows them up in their own greed and avarice. It’s clear that Dease’s art is deeply cursed, but these art enthusiasts are unable to get out of the way of their personal need for glory and fame.  Eventually Morf, as the art critic, deduces that the star-crossed artwork is manifesting itself in a whole lot of dying and suffering and he recommends that Rhodora Haze, the domineering former punk rock starlet turned renewed art gallery owner, dump her Dease collection and fast. Sadly, or maybe gratifyingly, Mort, Rhodora, Josephina, and Gretchen are over-taken by a big old dose of gluttony and get taught the ultimately lesson in humility. 

That’s precisely the problem with Velvet Buzzsaw, there’s too many protagonists, with little to no focus on a particular protagonist. At no point in time are Mort, Rhodora, Josephina, or Gretchen the focus of the film. This coupled with the fact that Velvet Buzzsaw wants to be deeply satirical in a way that’s slightly (read: barely) amusing.  Poking fun of a gaggle of affluent and self-involved nincompoops is and easy and somewhat lazy target.  Most importantly, none of these protagonists rises to the top, has a moment of self-reflection, and tries to right the wrongs of the art world.  Leaving the film with no dramatic tension, a big shoulder shrug, and weirdly, for a horror film, not a scare to be had. 

Velvet Buzzsaw is Rated R and available for streaming on Netflix.

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