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Review: Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

Directed by: Dan Gilroy

Premise: The work of an unknown artist is discovered upon his death. His paintings become an art world sensation but the dealers and critics who exploit the work are hounded by supernatural occurrences and mysterious deaths.

What Works: At its heart, Velvet Buzzsaw is a horror movie and it descends from the work of filmmakers like Lucio Fulci and Don Coscarelli. Like the best work of those filmmakers, Velvet Buzzsaw mixes gore and showmanship with a surrealist approach to the storytelling. Horror films often take place in crumbling and decayed settings that are dimly lit. Velvet Buzzsaw takes place in the sterile and well-lit spaces of bourgeois art galleries and then puts something terrifying and violent in them; that contrast is interesting and gives this film a feel that is different from a lot of other horror pictures. In addition to being a horror film, Velvet Buzzsaw is also satirical. The story’s main characters are dealers and critics of the art world. Everyone is pretentious and duplicitous and even before the picture takes a turn into the horrific, Velvet Buzzsaw has a lot of fun with these characters and the world that they inhabit. This movie is both scary and funny. Jake Gyllenhaal is terrific as an arrogant art critic. As in 2014’s Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal’s previous collaboration with filmmaker Dan Gilroy, the actor is eccentric but believable and he delivers the pretentious dialogue with conviction. This is also a movie with something to say about the art world. Velvet Buzzsaw contrasts the madness and dangerousness of this newly discovered artwork with the controlled and exploitative nature of commerce and the artwork itself strikes back at those who would exploit it. And in much the same way that a lot of contemporary art is impressionistic and rejects form, the horror of Velvet Buzzsaw is at once organic but also surreal.

What Doesn’t: Viewers may find Velvet Buzzsaw difficult to engage with because the story cultivates very little sympathy for its characters. This film has a sardonic regard for the art world and no one in the film is very nice. Most of the characters are unscrupulous and arrogant which is in keeping with Velvet Buzzsaw’s critique of the art world. But we don’t feel much dread for these people as they meet their grisly demises. For that matter, Velvet Buzzsaw is essentially a body count picture; the second half of the story is mostly a series of creative kills. The movie doesn’t provide much of an explanation for the supernatural phenomena. But because of the sardonic nature of the story, the background isn’t really the point and so the film mostly gets away with the thin exposition.

DVD extras: Available on Netflix.

Bottom Line: Velvet Buzzsaw is an unusual mix of elements. It’s a satirical horror picture that is both funny and scary and interrogates the limits of reality in artistic expression and the way the value of art is distorted or corrupted by the commercial part of the industry.

Episode: #745 (April 14, 2019)