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USA 2019
Directed by
Dan Gilroy
112 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars

Velvet Buzzsaw

This part glossy satire part schlocky Hammer horror hybrid should have been better but as the story progresses writer-director Dan Gilroy allows the horror to subsume the satire seemingly evidencing on Gilroy’s part an embittered dyspepsia if not an outright revulsion towards the L.A. art scene and, by extension, the art scene in general. The outcome is that even if the slurring is deserved it leaves one feeling dirty.

Jake Gyllenhaal, who had starred in Gilroy’s impressive 2014 debut feature Nightcrawler camps it up as trend-setting, gender-fluid art critic Morf Vandewalt, whose ability to make and break artists has top gallery owners desperate for his imprimatur on their stable’s work (Gyllenhaal has said that he based his character on real-life New York Pulitzer Prize winning art critic Jerry Saltz) . One such is Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo, Gilroy’s wife, who also starred in Nightcrawler) a former 1980s punk rocker in a band called Velvet Buzzsaw now turned art procurer to the mega-rich (we’re talking multi millions a throw here!). One day her assistant, Josephina (Zawe Ashton), finds the body of a dead man, a painter called  Ventril Dease, in the stairwell of her apartment building. The building supervisor tells Josephina that Dease instructed that on his death all his work should be destroyed. She goes to his apartment finds a remarkable cache of paintings and sees an opportunity to get out from under Rhodora’s tyrannical  thumb. The latter gets wind of the, as she puts it, “eight figure find “and soon the sharks are circling. But when people connected to her and Dease's paintings start dying violent deaths clearly something has gone awry.                    

Gilroy displays talent both as the writer and director of Velvet Buzzsaw. The production values are as up-market as you’d expect for the film’s setting (Rhodora’s Haze Gallery evokes real life New York art brokers the Pace Gallery) with the sharp art direction, wardrobe design and such captured by veteran cinematographer Robert Elswitt, another alumnus of Nightcrawler. Whilst all this and the performances are engaging (almost needless to say John Malkovich is in typical form as a sardonic near burn-out who, surprisingly comes to provide the film’s only note of redemption.

So yes, the Netflix-backed Velvet Buzzsaw is well-made but whether audiences for the film’s hyperbolic satire which is due in a large part to the antics of Gyllenhaal’s gushing aesthete will be quite so amused by the gradual transmutation into slasher horror is another matter.

FYI: The oddly named Ventril Dease character is presumably inspired by the real life Chicago outsider artist Henry Darger, a hospital janitor who on his death in the early 1970s left an apartment full of disturbing art works.




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