Friday, February 1, 2019

In the Art of Madness: "Velvet Buzzsaw" a mean, wildly entertaining art-world satire with a slasher horror twist and an excitingly eclectic ensemble

Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)
109 min.
Release Date: February 1, 2019 (Limited & Netflix)

The haute Los Angeles art scene is ripe for criticism in “Velvet Buzzsaw,” writer-director Dan Gilroy’s (2014’s “Nightcrawler”) barbed, wildly entertaining satire with an offbeat slasher horror twist. Gilroy has things to say about the commodification of art and how art is valued before literally skewering all types of people—critics, gallery owners, curators, advisers, agents, and artists themselves—in the cutthroat art world, most of them covetous, shallow, and altogether unpleasant, but really, it comes down to despicable people dying at the hands of art in spectacularly gruesome fashion. If one can get on its straight-up mean wavelength, “Velvet Buzzsaw” plays like a wickedly unpredictable nightmare yarn that would have the Crypt Keeper cackling with glee.

Opening by introducing a gallery of characters, Robert Altman-style, the film weaves between all of them and establishes their self-serving networking relationships at a Miami art show. There’s respected art critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal); gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo); Rhodora’s promising assistant Josephina (Zawe Ashton); museum curator Gretchen (Toni Collette); up-and-coming street artist Damrish (Daveed Diggs); gallery rival Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge); and legendary installation artist Piers (John Malkovich). Back in Los Angeles, when Josephina’s old neighbor, Ventril Dease, drops dead, she realizes he was an artist. Ignoring his instructions to have all of his artwork destroyed, she decides to represent him posthumously and put his collection into circulation. It seems Dease’s art has a mind of its own, so much that anyone who tries to benefit and profit from promoting, selling, or stealing his darkly visionary paintings gets what’s coming to them.

Coming from one of the most excitingly eclectic ensembles in recent memory, the performances are of the big, juicy, memorable variety, each actor seeing who can play the biggest narcissist. Always one to transform himself as he did with his intensely chilling performance in 2014’s Dan Gilroy-directed “Nightcrawler,” Jake Gyllenhaal is more mannered and yet not entirely one-note as Morf Vandewalt, but he’s still fascinating to watch and no less committed to making this character feel like somebody who probably exists, blending his work into every facet of his life that he even critiques the color of a casket at a funeral. Seconding Gyllenhaal's deliciously cruel and cruelly funny one-liners is Rene Russo (Gilroy's spouse), terrific in ball-breaking mode and sinking her teeth into the tough-as-nails Rhodora, who used to be a punk rocker. 

Zawe Ashton is endlessly interesting to watch as Josephina, who seems like she could be the moral anchor of the story before she becomes just as treacherous as anyone else when getting swept up in her power of finding Dease’s art; a few extra beats might have smoothed out her rushed arc and made it more convincing, but that's a script issue rather than a fault of Ashton's performance. That leaves plenty of colorful supporting turns from Toni Collette, John Malkovich, Tom Sturridge, Daveed Diggs, Billy Magnussen, and Natalia Dyer (Netflix’s “Stranger Things”), as meek assistant Coco. With the lone exception of Coco, who hilariously keeps finding every one of her bosses dead, the awesomely named characters are all caricaturized body-count constructs and, by design, only show humanity after someone in their art circle dies or is about to die.

Slickly shot by Robert Elswit and whimsically scored by composers Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders, “Velvet Buzzsaw” is one posh, tonally arch slasher film that delights in having it out for its characters. This time, art in its various forms is the masked killer, and Dan Gilroy's script, as bonkers as it gets, actually makes sure there is an internal logic to who lives and who dies; the gnarliest sequences involve one character getting their arm severed by an interactive art piece called Sphere, while another literally gets absorbed into the dripping paint from a graffiti painting. Right down to its nihilistic conclusion, the film knows exactly what it wants to do and does it well, critiquing the art world without blowing the lid off in saying anything surprising or being a hard-hitting exposé. Darkly playful and startlingly weird, “Velvet Buzzsaw” might not be high art, but one shouldn’t mistake it for being idiotic or commercial.

Grade: B

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