‘Velvet Buzzsaw’ uses Horror to Skewer Contemporary Art Culture—Thank God! (spoiler free)
Jake Gyllenhaal reunites with the writer and director Dan Gilroy of Nightcrawler (one of my favorite films of 2014), for Netflix’s Velvet Buzzsaw—an exploration of the vapid, competitive, trend-obsessed, capitalist art world. Gilroy accomplishes this through a compelling plot about haunted paintings made by a reclusive psycho. Nightcrawler and Buzzsaw feel similar, but also very different.
Viewers should not expect the slow burn of the Hitchcock-meets-Polanski ride through L.A.’s dark side that was Nightcrawler. Rather, Buzzsaw is more of a genre horror film in the vein of James Wan (Saw, and The Conjuring series)— only far more weird and well-executed; especially given its deeply interesting subtext about the place of art, money, and relationships in a late capitalist paradigm. Being a long-time resident of the New York City area, and a frequent visitor of galleries and museums—alongside friends far more invested in both art-speak and culture—this was a very welcome assault indeed.
With such a backdrop, Buzzsaw is also very funny. Gyllenhaal, an art critic, is particularly humorous during a funeral scene, where his laser-guided taste and encyclopedic knowledge of color tones tears apart the burial service. Like Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal’s performance is very much captured in his character- specific-tuned mannerisms and vocal nuance.
Nearly everyone in Buzzsaw is a bitch or a bastard, and yet few are unlikable or two-dimensional. Everyone’s performance is very good.
The haunted paintings featured in Buzzsaw are by the real show-stealer. Indeed, they are the scariest thing in the film. However, they are diminished by the computer-generated scares they produce. The paintings themselves are so unnervingly weird that the movie could have done excellently with little or no special effects at all. Equally, the death scenes are a little easy to predict. The movie would have done more for me if the CG was dumped for a plot more focused on slowly unraveling the history of the mad painter behind them. Also, if scenes spent more time just meditating on the spooky weirdness of the paintings (Kubrick-style) would’ve achieved far more than the computer-provided monsters. I wish it were a little less focused on scares and pratfall deaths and a little more focused on dread and mystery.
Buzzsaw’s not perfect, nor is it as unpredictable as Nightcrawler, but it is absolutely fantastic. Despite these issues, I highly recommend it for anyone into dark humor or horror, and especially to anyone related to the professional art world.
Between Buzzsaw and Nightcrawler, I admit that it’s great to see how far good ole Donnie Darko (another favorite) has consistently improved and inspire as an actor.