Do you ever wonder how or why certain pieces of art are worth millions of dollars? I think about that a lot, especially as someone who loves art. As an art lover, it doesn’t always make sense to me how some pieces can sell for $90 million while others go ignored. Are we saying that those big-ticket paintings are better art than those that don’t command those prices?

Of course not. The art scene, where critics reign supreme, gallery owners function as gatekeepers, and everyone wants their cut, sounds like the very opposite of how art should be handled. It seems twisted and deeply nihilistic to reduce artistic expression to its dollar amount.

This is the premise behind Velvet Buzzsaw, Dan Gilroy’s latest effort. Fresh from its premiere at Sundance Film Festival, Velvet Buzzsaw is a satirical horror film that aims to tackle this vapid world and those who inhabit it.

Velvet Buzzsaw is the story of a mysterious deceased painter, Vetril Dease, who left behind not only a huge cache of disturbing paintings but also strict instructions to destroy his entire body of work. Ignoring his wishes, young gallery employee Josephina (Zawe Ashton), art critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal), and gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo) take the paintings and use them to further their wealth and success in the art world. Soon enough, everyone is obsessed with Dease’s dark and enigmatic work, which seems to have a life of its own. Before long, those who sought to profit off his art find themselves confronted with horrific and surreal violence, somehow perpetuated by Dease from beyond the grave.

velvet buzzsaw

Velvet Buzzsaw wants to be a horror movie that elevates the genre to say something really profound and important. But while horror may look easy, not everyone can pull it off.

Specifically, the film wants to say something profound about the creative process and who owns that process—artists or those who consume and profit from the artists’ work. It’s a worthy aim given the cutthroat nature of the art scene, and when it comes to skewering those aspects of the art world, Velvet Buzzsaw is a success.

velvet buzzsaw

The cast perfectly embodies certain artsy archetypes—the posh and pretentious art critic who is actually full of shit, the punk-rocker-turned-gallery-owner who uses her old street cred to further her wealth and influence, the idealistic newbie who becomes unscrupulous once she’s given a chance, and the museum curator who sells out to procure pieces for the highest bidder. There’s also a fair bit of criticism reserved for the artists themselves, such as the famous painter who hasn’t produced anything noteworthy since he gave up booze, or the next big thing who clings to his underground sensibilities even as he very consciously seeks to become a commodity. In portraying the consumerism and greed of the art world, Velvet Buzzsaw demonstrates just how ridiculous and cruel these people are.

velvet buzzsaw

But as a horror movie, Velvet Buzzsaw fails.

The main problem is that Velvet Buzzsaw does not create and maintain suspense. A horror movie about killer paintings and such, from the writer/director of Nightcrawler no less, promises crackling suspense. This film does not deliver it. There are a few weird, unsettling moments, but the film’s overall tone and execution are inconsistent and disappointing.

velvet buzzsaw

Additionally, Velvet Buzzsaw isn’t very scary. Velvet Buzzsaw underestimates the horror genre. It spends way too much time on the vapidness of the characters before hamfisting the scary parts without any feel for mounting dread or horror. The high-point involves a magnificently squirm-inducing scene where high-brow scream queen Toni Collette saves the movie. Her scene ends up being frustrating, however, because it offers a peek at what might have been had the filmmakers had a better grasp of horror.

velvet buzzsaw

Additionally, the film relies on dated horror movie clichés that, honestly, I couldn’t help rolling my eyes at. My single biggest problem with this movie is that it assumes that lazy internal logic will scare the audience. SPOILER ALERT: It doesn’t!

It is crystal clear that there is no rhyme or reason behind how or why certain pieces of art had the murderous effect they did or why Dease’s art “worked” the way it did. The film’s attempts to cultivate malevolence are superficial and boring, even to casual horror fans. I spent much longer than I should have trying to figure out if I had missed some clue that would illuminate the movie’s message. But then I realized that I hadn’t missed anything and that the film’s script needed a good developmental edit (or two) to build out its themes and weave tension throughout. (I have a blow-by-blow list of all the problems I had with the script, but I’ll save my writer rant for later.)

It’s as if the filmmakers fundamentally misunderstood the horror genre. When done well, horror is so much more than a bunch of spooky lighting and disturbing death sequences. When done well, horror takes our fears and uses a story to explore them in a way that bypasses our rational brains. When done well, horror reaches through the screen and refuses to be ignored.

velvet buzzsaw

It’s a pity. I really wanted the film to develop its themes of greed vs. inspiration, money and fame vs. artistic autonomy. I wanted to understand the darkness in how the most “important” art nowadays is not the result of organic success like we tell ourselves. I wanted to see the existential horror in how the most influential critics refuse to engage with art, how greed can corrupt an artist’s intent, and how an artist might fight back against the system that commoditizes him.

velvet buzzsaw

I wanted Velvet Buzzsaw to answer it’s central question—“What’s the point of art if no one sees it?”

Instead, it sacrifices its artistic message in favor of shallowly dressing down those who buy and sell art without respect for the art or the artist.

How ironic.

velvet buzzsaw

Some stray thoughts:

  • The cast did a very good job with what they were given. I enjoyed watching Gyllenhaal glide around galleries as a pompous asshole, just as I enjoyed Collette’s turn as a bitchy, scheming private dealer. John Malkovich played a jaded artist very well, but he felt a little wasted.
  • The CGI is…very low budget, which detracted from any suspension of disbelief when things got weird and horrific.
  • I could see the trash bag joke coming from a mile away (you will as well), but I still laughed.  
  • Poor Coco. That girl is going to need some serious therapy once she gets back to Michigan.
  • Hoboman for the win!

What did you think of Velvet Buzzsaw? How awesome was Toni Collette? Let me know in the comments!

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