Starry Cast Squandered In "Velvet Buzzsaw"

On the heels of “Nightcrawler” and “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” writer-director Dan Gilroy dips his toe into horror with “haunted art” pic “Velvet Buzzsaw.” Despite flashes of sharp, spooky satire, the Netflix release is exactly the shoulder shrug of a movie the streaming giant can’t afford to keep churning out. The movie virtually dares us to sit it through its 112 minutes without taking an extended break, dishing out middling thrills at an awfully reliable clip.

The Rod Serling-esque story – a dead man’s paintings plague glib art hounds – allows for a few nifty effects-driven scares, but the upshot is nearly as superficial as the world it’s lampooning.

“Nightcrawler” star Jake Gyllenhaal plays vacuous art critic Morf Vandewalt, a bespectacled beatnik whose arc (or lack thereof) lays bare the film’s biggest failing. Instead of playing things straight or alternately going full-bore campy, Gilroy walks a fairly uneventful line down the middle. Previously unafraid of indulging his more unsubtle instincts, he curiously holds back all too often here, perhaps constrained by a relatively low budget. At times the movie is decidedly cheap-looking.

Screen time is scattered between Gyllenhaal and the rest of a capable ensemble; no true lead ever emerges. This dispersion makes sense on paper but proves an unnatural fit for a filmmaker whose first two directorial efforts were hyper-focused on a single character. In bouncing from Vandewalt to gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo) to her underling Josephina (Zawe Ashton) to curator Gretchen (Toni Collette) and players in between, the high concept is quickly bogged down in melodrama. We never get familiar enough with any of the characters to make their inevitable demises at all impactful.

John Malkovich, of all people, gets absolutely nothing to do as an artist friend of Russo’s character.

The pic’s horror elements are amusing – a robotic art piece dubbed Hoboman cries out for its own movie – and still entirely dispensable. The notion of a dead artist’s work punishing greedy art snobs should tickle anyone who knows the name Francis Bacon. And the cast seems game for anything; Gyllenhaal especially, who continues to look to Gilroy for oeuvre-redefining roles. The actor comes the closest to embracing the camp classic the film might have been.

In reality it’s as stimulating as bumper bowling. Without any real stakes, the love triangles and horror setpieces play like boxes being checked. A dead artist’s work comes to life but the movie never does. Marking a troubling trend for Gilroy: “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” didn’t live up to “Nightcrawler” and “Velvet Buzzsaw” doesn’t live up to “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” It certainly doesn’t live up to its evocative title.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: February 1, 2019
Studio: Netflix
Director: Dan Gilroy
Screenwriter: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Collette, Zawe Ashton, Natalia Dyer, Daveed Diggs, Billy Magnussen, John Malkovich
MPAA Rating: R (for violence, language, some sexuality/nudity and brief drug use)