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Velvet Buzzsaw (15)

Director: Dan Gilroy

Screenplay: Dan Gilroy

Starring: Jake GyllenhaalRene RussoZawe Ashton

Review: David Stephens

The massive success of “Nightcrawler” in 2014 meant that any other projects which filmmaker Dan Gilroy wrote/directed following that sizable success, would certainly be eagerly awaited. He flirted with the genre by co-writing the fun Monsterverse pic “Kong: Skull Island”, but this is his first out-and-out horror. When early word spread that Gilroy would be reuniting with his “Nightcrawler” lead actors (Jake Gyllenhaal & Rene Russo) for a scary flick set in the art world, eyebrows were raised in anticipation. Gilroy then raised the game by declaring that it would have a Robert Altman-feel to the story and would ape the “vibe” of films like “The Player”. The picture was eventually funded and distributed by Netflix, and went on to include several other big names in the cast, such as Toni Collette and John Malkovich. It’s not the first time that art and horror have collided of course. You only need to think of literary works as Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, or films like “House of Wax” or “A Bucket of Blood”. But “Velvet Buzzsaw” takes an expectedly cynical view of modern art and its pretentious foibles, a place where one man’s sneeze-on-a-canvas can be another’s work-of-genius. The film had its world premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival on January 27, and swiftly moved to the streaming channel on 1st February for all to see. So YGROY takes a step back to see if we can make out just what’s going on in the frame…

Morf Vandelwalt (Gyllenhaal) is a smarmy art critic, whose word can make or break the box office for an exhibition or an artist’s credibility. He moves in the upper echelons of the art world and frequently collaborates with steely gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Russo). The protégé of Haze, Josephina (Zawe Ashton) starts a relationship with Vandelwalt, but harbours strong ambitions of her own. When she literally stumbles across the deceased body of an elderly neighbour in her apartment block, it brings an unlikely opportunity her way. It turns out that the unlucky stiff was an accomplished artist called Ventril Dease (NB: Weird anagrammatic Cronbergian names are definitely a thing here and there are obviously some in-jokes in play… but you might as well have called the antagonist Siffy Luss or something). Anyhoo, it turns out Dease had left instructions for his artwork to be burnt after his death, but Josephina is far too canny to miss out on the possible fame and reputation it could bring her. But as the disturbing portraits of Dease start to take the art world by storm, those who attempt to profit by them either vanish or meet a violent end…

In effect, VB is the sort of production that you would imagine renegade UK artist Banksy to make, if someone were to give him the keys to the “Final Destination” franchise. Perhaps there’s a dash of “Absolutely Fabulous” satire thrown in there as well. In some ways it’s an odd-but-playful horror, with some very obvious targets. As you would expect, the bulk of characters are almost caricatures, and speak only in fluent “pretension”. A character doesn’t need to up her game in her employment; she needs to “raise the quality bar in her performance”. The handyman is “a man of primitive skills”. There’s also some obvious humour in evidence; a pile of garbage is mistaken for an art exhibit, a school tour has kids track bloody footprints around a crime scene before anybody realises it contains a genuine dead body. It’s all familiar stuff if you’ve had any kind of access to modern museums and art. It’s hardly cutting edge or “dangerous” humour, but it’s good natured fun that revels in the shallow fickle nature of the artistes and the industry that cultivates them. The fact that it doesn’t crumble under its own campiness and eccentricities is mostly due to the A-list cast, who seem to be having a good time with the material. Gyllenhaal especially has fun with his ungrounded character, a person who criticises the “cheesy organ music” and the “smug orange” coffin at a funeral, and can’t understand why he is berated for it. His descent into gradual madness, and someone who can’t trust their beloved senses, is very gratifying to watch. Ashton and Russo also embody their tremendously entitled characters well, although the inclusion of Malkovich’s “lost” artist is a little baffling for what he actually brings to the plot. 

In terms of genre content, it is definitely a horror with a supernatural bent (with an artist who literally leaves some of himself in his work). It is occasionally creepy (the “Grease Monkeys”, the portraits turning in the canvas), and at least one character has a Grand Guignol send-off. The final rush of “incidents” piles up the horror aspect, with a neat (and gory) twist on what actually passes as “Art”. But it doesn’t have the grimness or “noir” elements that you might have thought would carry over from “Nightcrawler”. At its heart, it’s a very slight “Tales from the Crypt”-type morality tale, that throws in a ton of social satire and notable performances to obfuscate that very fact. (NB: The origin and motives of Dease’s curse is pretty much lost in the narrative). So in one respect, and this harkens back to the “Final Destination” movies again, you’re just watching some pretty unlikeable characters get their come-uppance in a suitably artistic and unlikely fashion. That’s not to say it’s not enjoyable or fun to watch, because it feels like a classy offering that’s above the norm, rather than a simple splat-a-thon. There’s still a slight niggle present however, that more could have been done with the “art-kills” and “greed betrays creativity” codas. It’s an idea that could easily support a sequel or further similar excursions, should the viewing figures and reviews dictate that possibility. 

So in summary, VB isn’t a stand-out film as such, or a something which will stick in the psyche like “Nightcrawler”. But it is a fun and unusual excursion into art-as-horror. As something Gilroy reportedly wanted to highlight with this production, it’s good to see behind the pretensions and just look at the creative soul that’s been captured. There are actually some great natural images of L.A. and its scenery, which easily compares to anything captured in oil. So you can admire that, some fun performances, and revel in the campy Dr Phibes-style killings for a lightweight bit of fun, which might not be a masterpiece but still entertains effortlessly. 

VB is a playful little horror which is certainly elevated by its excellent cast and often great cinematography. Beyond the (very) obvious satirical elements and basic genre tropes, there isn’t a great deal more to it and the basic plot could have been borrowed from a low-budget splatter pic. But it’s still fun to watch, with good performances and some neat demises. Hearty arty fare.  
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