Movie Review : Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)
Our relationship to art is weird. It’s everywhere: cinema, television, video games, advertising, novels, etc. But it’s being sold to us like groceries, clothing items and whatnot: “watch Game of Thrones’ new season because… what else are you gonna do?” To us, art is a mere commodity that allows us to connect to coworkers we would otherwise have nothing in common with. The idea itself has lost its meaning to everyone, but the people making it. Believe it or not, there a movie about that. Dan Gilroy’s Velvet Buzzsaw explores the essence of art in the twenty-first century in a rather profound way without ever taking itself seriously. It’s pretty great.
Velvet Buzzsaw is the story of Josephina (Zawe Ahston), an art gallery worker who accidentally discovers an unknown genius painter who lived in her building. The work of the enigmatic Vetril Dease (who’s corpse is played by Alan Mandell) immediately enthralls renowned critic and tastemaker Morf Vanderwalt (Jake Gyllenhall) and art galleries start fighting over it. But little do they know, Dease left instruction to destroy his paintings after he’s dead and now, people who attempt to profit from them are starting to die themselves. And they don’t just disappear in happy, painless ways. They suffer a fucked up fate.
This movie was a lot of fun. Velvet Buzzsaw about art and the effect it has on people, but it only features two painters (John Malkovich and Daveed Diggs), who really don’t do much. I believe both of them amount to a single painting through the entire movie. The main characters of Velvet Buzzsaw aren’t artists. They commercialize art and make it profitable, which results in artists becoming comfortable a losing inspiration. Malkovich’s character Piers stopped drinking, has an entire floor of his studio dedicated to reproductions and…. cannot pain anything interesting, anymore.
What unites the characters is their reactions to Vetril Dease’s paintings. It’s visceral. They can’t fake it. The paintings reveal their true nature: Rhodora (Rene Russo) becomes greedy and ruthless, passionate Morf become obsessed to a point it overtakes his life, Piers stars drinking again, Damrish is inspired to leave Rhodora’s gallery and go back to what works for him, etc. And from the grave, Dease weeds out the unrighteous. The people who compromise the purity of art. Theoretically, art should be moving people and revealing their inner self. Creation should come from a pure place and in Velvet Buzzsaw, the “boogeyman” is murdering those who compromise artistic integrity.
If Velvet Buzzsaw works so well, it’s because writer and director Dan Gilroy is one of the sharpest, most original screenwriters in mainstream cinema today. His work is so freakin’ quirky and off-beat. For example, Morf should be an unpleasant character, but the fact that he’s a homosexual man experiencing genuine feelings for Josephina makes him thoroughly alone and therefore somewhat of an underdog. There are many straight men experiencing homosexual feelings in cinema, but the opposite? That’s a first for me. Also, like in Nightcrawler, the villain is pretty much the protagonist of this movie. Except we’re experiencing him through the antagonists point of view. Mindfuck level = master.
Velvet Buzzsaw received polarizing reviews. It has a 66% approval rating on RottenTomatoes, which is borderline criminal to me. I don’t know if critics felt attacked by Morf Vanderwalt’s character, but whoever didn’t see the Coen brothers level of deadpan humor and metacommentary in this movie maybe shouldn’t be reviewing movies for a living. Velvet Buzzsaw is a triumph. It is hard evidence that in 2019, you can be serious and take risks, while not taking yourself seriously. Dan Gilroy is one of the best screenwriters/filmmakers working today and we should be cherishing him as such. Velvet Buzzsaw is perhaps not perfect, but it is deceptively cerebral and gloriously alive.