If Velvet Buzzsaw had been made in the ‘90s, it would bomb at the box office and then, a few years later, be revived as an underground cult classic that attracted large gatherings for midnight screenings with elaborate rituals. But it’s 2019, so Velvet Buzzsaw was crafted for its ideal home: Netflix, where it can immediately go viral. It’s full of instantly meme-able shots, like Jake Gyllenhaal’s Morf Vandewalt “working from home" mood, and the kind of lines that beg to be woven into pop culture (“something truly goddamn strange is going on!”).
Velvet Buzzsaw is essentially an elongated version of the trailer, which touches on nearly nearly every important plot point – and nearly every gruesome death. The movie is set within the elite art world, where material worth is valued over artistic merit, and that value is derived from the opinions of taste-makers like Morf. Most of the characters, save poor Coco (Natalia Dyer), are shallow, pretentious, and money-obsessed. But that doesn't mean they deserve what's coming for them when they begin to sell a set of cursed paintings.
The trouble begins when Josephina (Zawe Ashton), the unappreciated and over-worked assistant of gallery owner Rhodora (Rene Russo), encounters a dead man in her apartment building. His straight-out-of-Hoarders apartment holds a surprising treasure — Ventril Dease was a prodigiously talented painter who saved all his art. Josephina, spotting glory when she sees it, wraps up the colorful paintings with haunting faces and contacts Morf. With a face of awe, Morf backs up her judgment ("they're mesmeric"). Though Josephina wants to strike out on her own with the paintings, Rhodora strong-arms her way into displaying them – and reaps a fortune on the Dease Fever that follows.
The only problem? Dease never wanted his paintings sold. In fact, he explicitly requested they be destroyed. In an aside, this aspect of Velvet Buzzsaw strikes a strange similarity to the case of Vivian Maier's photographs. Like Dease, Maier was a loner who kept her art a secret her whole life. Maier's extensive and stunning collection of street photography, taken while she worked as a nanny, were discovered after her death by John Maloof. After buying a box of Maier's negatives, Maloof spotted her inherent genius and ignited a Maier craze. He has since made millions off her work. But some suspect Maier never wanted the photos sold in the first place.
The difference, of course, is that Maier's photos aren't cursed (as far as we know). Dease's paintings definitely are. And anyone who tries to reap commerce from Dease's paintings meets an untimely death. One by one, Rhodora and her cronies are picked off. Let's go over their gruesome fates.
Bryson is the first to go. He works in Rhodora's gallery as a handyman, though, as he reminds everyone, he's really an artist. During the Dease opening, Rhodora instructs Bryson to move some of Dease's excess paintings to storage (a play for Rhodora to eventually jack up the prices). Instead, he takes the opportunity to steal the paintings to sell himself.
As he's driving away in his truck, his cigarette falls and his shirt catches fire. Though he manages to leave the car, Dease's "spirit" is on his trail. After pulling into a gas station to fix his burns, he's pulled into a painting of monkeys, a la Super Mario 64.
2. Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge) fixes the light himself.
Jon, Rhodora's competitor, hires a private investigator to look into Dease's sinister past. As Jon learns, Dease murdered his abusive father by setting him on fire. Then, he was sent to facility for the criminally insane known for performed experiments on patients. In the background, the camera zooms in on a Dease painting of a little boy cowering before an older man. Dease was unwell and disturbed. He used blood for the red pigment in paintings.
But Jon doesn't have a chance to tell anyone about Dease's atrocious history. Jon finds himself locked in a gallery exhibit with a flickering light and a mysterious film playing on a projector. When Jon tries to fix the light, his hand — as if controlled by a spirit — attaches his ties to the rafter and hangs him. Coco discovers his body in the morning.
3. Gretchen (Toni Collette) loses an arm.
Gretchen is high on her career transition. She left her job as a curator at the Los Angeles Museum of Art for a role as a buyer for a wealthy individual. Wandering around Rhodora's gallery late at night, she sticks her hand into the famous sphere sculpture seen in the beginning of the movie. Each hole is supposed to provide a different sensation.
This particular sensation is not a pleasant one: The sculpture rips off Gretchen's arm. She dies in a pool of her own blood, which the guard believes is part of the artwork and leaves untouched all day. Coco stumbles upon her body.
4. Josephina becomes one with art.
Josephina is furious and confused that Damrish (Daveed Diggs) would choose to leave Rhodora's esteemed gallery for his old grungy artist collective. "What's the point of art if no one sees it?" she asks, echoing the movie's larger question: Do people have a right to see — and sell — Dease's amazing art, even if he wanted it destroyed?
While waiting for a tow truck to move her blocked-in car, Josepina seeks refuge in a nearby gallery, which just randomly materialized. As she talks to Rhodora on the phone, the graffiti-inspired paintings start to melt, and the paint travels up her leg. She dies a very Bond girl death. Her terrified face becomes a part of the parking garage mural.
5. Morf is hunted down by Hoboman, the artsy Cyberman.
Arguably the most sci-fi all deaths, Morf dies after being chased down by the same robot on crutches seen in the opening Art Basel Miami exhibit. The robot corners Morf in a storage facility and twists his neck. Once again, Coco is the one to find the body.
6. Rhodora almost gets away.
The spirit starts working overtime. At the same time Rhodora becomes a painting and Morf gets strangled, it comes for Rhodora. She's almost crushed by a sculpture in her sprawling backyard but manages to dive out of the way. Rhodora gives away her paintings and shuts down the Dease dealings. Just when she thinks she's safe, the Velvet Buzzsaw (her old punk band) tattoo on her back starts spinning. She gets Velvet Buzzsawed to death.
The spirit will be contained so long as no one sells or buys Dease's art. Rhodora, finally believing in the curse, pulls all of Dease's art.
But since art gallery owners aren't the only people looking to make a profit, the art doesn't end up in storage. On her way to the airport, Coco sees a man on the street selling Dease's paintings Before, only those who could afford the million-dollar price tag were susceptible to the curse. Now, anyone with some cash can afford the five dollar paintings.
So, Dease's curse will spread and spread. After the paintings' new owners inevitably die, the curse will jump to the hapless people who buy the Dease paintings in estate sales. Only Piers (John Malkovitch), drawing ephemeral art in the sand that cannot be sold, will be spared. As the end credits show, he's through with the commercial art world and all its hazards.