Think of any given hacky stock joke about the contemporary art world, and you can be guaranteed that the new Los Angeles-set movie Velvet Buzzsaw uses it. There’s a scene in which a bunch of characters crow over how supposedly brilliant a work is, and then it cuts to show that it’s actually a mundane painting. A character mistakes a heap of regular garbage for a work of art. Museum patrons mistake a crime scene as something that’s “part of the show.” Jake Gyllenhaal’s critic character describes everything in vague terms like “Critique is so limiting and emotionally draining,” or “No originality. No courage.” A bunch of high-society types gossip with limp wrists and cocked heads. There are not one, not two, but three sight gags which assume vaping is inherently funny. That writer and director Dan Gilroy tackles a subject so incredibly ripe for mockery but goes for the easiest, most tired clichés is quite disappointing.
The movie isn’t merely a satire of the Los Angeles art scene, however. It’s also a supernatural thriller in which these hoity-toity characters are killed one after another by a vague force seeking to punish them for turning art into commerce. Besides Gyllenhaal’s character (the kind of ultra-powerful and influential critic who only exists in movies), Rene Russo plays a gallery owner, Zawe Ashton her ambitious assistant, Toni Collette a curator, Daveed Diggs a lower-class artist who’s hit the big time, and John Malkovich a Koons-esque washout.
The plot kicks off when Ashton’s character discovers that her recently deceased, reclusive neighbor was secretly a prolific artist — think Henry Darger, except he produces generically “spooky” movie paintings instead of unique, hypnotic, vaguely unsettling drawings tied to a 15,000-page fantasy novel. Russo claims the entire collection to push as the next big thing, but soon the cast finds themselves haunted by the art around them. One painting literally eats someone, an installation lures in a character and tricks them into getting hanged, a robotic sculpture stalks and attacks another character, so on and so forth.
Velvet Buzzsaw puts even less effort into its horror than its satire. The exact nature of the threat is vague — is it the artist’s ghost, reaching out to protect his legacy? A malign energy within the drawings “infecting” other art? And the sinister backstory laid out for the cursed, haunted artwork is incredibly generic. The kills are both predictable and unimaginative, and shot with no technique to ramp up suspense or visual flair to distinguish it from any other horror flick. Which is ironic, given the subject matter.
In general, the film feels like it was made based on an unfinished script. It’s difficult to tell whether some of the dialogue is intentionally funny or just awkwardly written. The title doesn’t actually apply to anything within the movie, referring to a band Russo’s character was a part of in her early punk rock days. This can vaguely, sort of apply to the movie’s idea of authenticity being lost in the name of a market, but the connection to the story itself is weak. Gyllenhaal and Ashton’s characters have a romantic subplot which keeps skipping moments, with the part where he breaks up with his current partner completely omitted and not clarified until some time after the fact. There’s a twist where Gyllenhaal sees a painting move and suddenly acts as if this has been happening to him for some time, even though the audience has not been shown this before. Malkovich’s character doesn’t really have a purpose, and vanishes after a while. The narrative doesn’t build to a point so much as it just ticks off each character to be killed, one after another.
Velvet Buzzsaw doesn’t have a joke or a kill that hasn’t already been seen in plenty of movies. Its understanding of the art world seems thin, incorporating the most obvious touchstones. There’s an important art piece that’s sort of like something Yayoi Kusama might do. The plot is built around an artist who’s sort of like Darger. Malkovich is sort of like Koons. It doesn’t say much about the subject itself other than that it’s a shame art is so heavily commodified, as if this is somehow a new phenomenon or observation. It’s funny in fits and spurts (Gyllenhaal’s character is “Morf Vandewalt,” and I’m a mark for ridiculous names), but neither scary nor cutting.
Velvet Buzzsaw will be released in select theaters and on Netflix on February 1.