Netflix’s Velvet Buzzsaw is a captivating, silly, delicious, decadent mess. It’s the cronut of movies, a pointless treat I never thought I’d need, or want, until it was put right in front of me. But now that I’m aware of it, I’m willing to wait hours — my whole life! — in line for it, and I hate lines more than anything.
Director Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler, Roman J. Israel) delivers a broad canvas of the L.A. art scene, gutting everyone from critics to gallerists, art advisors, buyers, and poseurs. Only the artists, those pouring their hearts and souls into the projects that become a thing to be assessed, catalogued and sold, emerged unscathed. Melding horror and supernatural satire, it may be flawed, but never, ever boring as it questions the commercialization and commodification of art, that — like, said cronut — turns passion and craft into a moment of instant, superficial hype.
But if he’s the king of taste, Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo) is its biggest distributor. A former punk rocker (her band, Velvet Buzzsaw gives the movie its name), she now runs the Haze Gallery, which sells established, famous talents like Piers (John Malkovich), alongside rising stars like Damrish (Daveed Diggs) to rich people more interested in profit appreciation than art. They are our entry ticket to the world of high art, a place of short blunt bangs, cut-throat competition, and enough money and booze to drown Los Angeles.
It’s a tough circle to break into, as assistant Josephina (Zawe Ashton, who needs to lend me her closet), who works at Haze alongside meek Michigan native Coco (Stranger Things’ Natalia Dyer) and artist/handyman Bryson (Billy Magnussen), soon finds out. So, when Josephina comes across a treasure trove of disturbing, groundbreaking paintings in a dead neighbor’s apartment, she doesn’t hesitate. Disregarding the old man’s wish to have his art destroyed, she hands nearly 1,000 paintings and sketches over to Rhodora and Morf, who praise her for finding the next art craze. But as the death toll rises, it soon becomes clear that there’s something very dark lurking in those twisted images of pain and suffering.
The horror component in Velvet Buzzsaw is B-level at best. It’s never so much scary as it is a mood. At one point, a former museum curator (played by Toni Collette) who sells out for big bucks as an art advisor to the wealthy literally gets her arm torn off by something hiding in a giant chrome experiential sphere, her garishly red blood gushing out in giant spurts from a newly formed stump. It looks, feels, and sounds fake — a moment that’s more comical than it is scary.
But then the whole film is campy to the max, and therein lies its charm. Why hold back on a world that’s so ripe for parody? Of course Morf says things like “ensorceled” as he peers through his Tom Ford glasses at a work of art painted with a mentally ill man’s blood; of course security guards walk past a dead body in a museum thinking it was an installation; of course Rhodora has a hairless cat. It’s at once way over the top and exactly right.
Of course, none of this would work without the stunning production design that really sells the environment Gilroy wants to depict. The visuals are striking, from the costumes to the swirling, colorful mess of Art Basel, and of course, the art hanging on everyone’s oversized loft walls. Even Josephina’s personal champagne glasses are modern masterpieces of carved crystal. Still, there’s a whiff of decay coming from that glossy lifestyle. The film’s title suggests that value lies in authenticity. Rhodora may interact with artists and art every day but she was more connected to it when she was trying to dismantle the system in the ‘80s than she is now, clad in tastefully edgy monochrome clothing that would cost a year’s salary for an artist working menial jobs to support themselves.
Think of this as The Ring, art world edition: Anyone who has come into contact with the stolen paintings in a greedy mindset is condemned to death. Only the pure survive.
Russo and Gyllenhaal both appeared in Gilroy’s 2014 thriller Nightcrawler, another film that revels in showcasing humanity’s basest instincts, and have smooth chemistry that’s equal parts love and hate. They’re clearly having a blast depicting these garbage people and it’s riveting to watch. Still, in an ironic twist, the film doesn’t quite know what to do with the stable of talent it has assembled. Malkovich and Collette are great, quirky additions, but we don’t see enough of them. Same goes for Dyer, whose character bears the tragic but hilarious burden of discovering nearly every body in the film’s nearly two-hour run time.
The plot is really Velvet Buzzsaw’s weakest link — parables work well from a bird’s eye view, less so with granular details. But it’s such a thrilling, delectable ride that, well, who cares? Sign me up for that sugar rush.