After a verbal spat with Morf (Jake Gyllenhaal), Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo) utters the phrase “All art is dangerous,” and that mantra serves as a mission statement in Velvet Buzzsaw. The latest film from Dan Gilroy sets a fun cast of characters down a very dark path of murder and death. Yet the horror elements of the feature are not what stands out from Velvet Buzzsaw. Instead, the campy and exaggerated display of the modern art community thrives with comedic beats. Sadly, the whole film is not the full-on parody you want, but the film that exists at shows why Gilroy continues to attract talent and praise for his work.
Velvet Buzzsaw follows a group of artists, critics, art dealers, and assistants in the high art world. The majority of the film focuses on three characters, namely Morf (Gyllenhaal), Rhodora (Russo) and Josephina (Zawe Ashton). Morf is a tastemaker, critic with an unusual hold over the art community. Morf and Josephina have recently begun a romantic relationship, just as Josephina has come under fire working for Rhodora. However, after Rhodora finds her recently deceased neighbor’s artwork, the trio becomes invested in its dissemination. However, when a string of deaths occur with those who are associated with the art, Morf begins to question if there is something deeper, and more evil, going on.
Gyllenhaal lights up the film, once again committing to a ridiculous character and making it feel real. Gyllenhaal will always bring his all to every role, and while parts of the film begin to crumble, especially in the latter half, he never gives less than his best. He has grown into an accomplished comedic performance, and his air of snobbiness, frustration, and fear brilliantly combine to create the ultimate art critic.
Ashton and Russo give strong performances, despite playing deepy unlikeable characters. Russo portrays the more realistic of the two, showing greed and ambition in each moment of the film. She is uncompromising as a dealer and will not stop until she’s earned every dollar possible. You can tell that the experience with her band, Velvet Buzzsaw (where the film gets its name), clearly conditioned her to not let the world pull one over on her, and Russo excels at bringing a layered character to life. Meanwhile, Ashton has a far bigger character, one who appears morally bankrupt, even as she gets shaken by revelations throughout the film. Ashton verbally says the right things at times in the film, but through her portrayal, you can tell she’s co-signed every bad decision. She wants fame and fortune above all else and she becomes one of the easiest characters to root against as the movie evolves.
The rest of the cast does well in small roles, but no one else has enough material to make a big impact. You can single out Toni Collette, who seems extremely underused in this feature. However, she has a lot of fun in this role, so while she gets limited screentime, she knocks it out of the park. Daveed Diggs gets to mostly look pretty, but the way the paintings draw his hypnosis shows that he can suck the attention of a film to him. He’s extremely captivating when on screen, and his role as the sexy artist showed allowed him to stand out among the ensemble.
Ultimately, the big issue Velvet Buzzsaw will have with audiences will be its eccentric tone. The comedy moments are fun, campy, and pop sugar. You’ll enjoy every moment where the parody brings the actors out to have fun. Gyllenhaal also gets to be a bisexual character, one of the few legitimate depictions of the sexual orientation on screen. However, using it to show his character doesn’t really know what he wants may be a poor choice in the long run. In many ways, it is a good way to look at the film that doesn’t seem to know if it wants to be a horror or a comedy. Rather than play the horror comedy route that so many have before, the movie feels bi-polar at times.
Perhaps most frustrating about this choice is that the horror never lives up to the highs of the comedy. For a film about art coming to life and murdering patrons of the arts, we don’t get enough enjoyment. Instead, there are few actual scares and just slow burn murders. You know they’re coming, and none really stand out with the exception of Billy Magnussen (who was criminally underused here). The film’s also never really gets that gross with the exception of a character losing their arm. It feels like a real missed opportunity on that front.
Still, there was something charming about Velvet Buzzsaw. While the film does not rise to the heights of Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, it certainly qualifies as a fun watch. You’ll be thoroughly entertained, and for fans of light horror, it should check the boxes. Ultimately, the film struggles with tone, but you’ll get some very fun performances from Gyllenhaal, Magnussen, Diggs, and Collette that should make you interested to tune into this early year thriller.