If you’ve ever wondered how artists can so freely sell what are billed as chunks of their soul, the new art-world thriller Velvet Buzzsaw might be for you. A polemic against the commercialism of the gallery scene in the guise of a horror film, the Netflix release (available for streaming as of Friday) sees the first reunion of Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, and writer-director Dan Gilroy since 2014’s Nightcrawler, the trio’s sticky-slimy minor masterpiece. Their earlier collaboration was an over-the-top satire of the voyeurism of local news and the bleak sunniness of corporate culture that followed a rapacious vulture (Gyllenhaal) all over a hard-bitten Los Angeles. Gilroy recycles many of Nightcrawler’s components in Velvet Buzzsaw, but here the sum amounts to far less than its parts.
But oh, what parts! And names! Reluctant dreamboat Gyllenhaal adds to his collection of kooks as Morf Vandewalt, an art critic so always on he can’t help commenting on the aesthetics of a coffin at a funeral. (Gyllenhaal reportedly based his character on famed New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz.) Gilroy once again cast Russo, his wife, as a well-heeled, coreless grasper: Her gallery owner, Rhodora Haze, is an ex-punk who’s reinvented herself as a “purveyor of good taste.” Toni Collette sports a blunt platinum bob to play Gretchen, a museum curator turned millionaire’s art adviser, running around hip downtown L.A. trying to convince others that she runs the place. Trying to join their ranks is relative newcomer Zawe Ashton’s Josephina, a gallery receptionist who steals a trove of darkly brilliant paintings from a dead neighbor’s apartment, pointedly ignoring the unknown artist’s wishes that his oeuvre be destroyed after his demise.
Each of the four quickly finds a way to use the paintings to advance their own careers. And each of the four—as well as those around them, including Billy Magnussen’s sleazy art installer and Tom Sturridge’s dandy-ish rival gallery owner—in turn becomes the target of the deceased artist’s vengeful spirit. Velvet Buzzsaw hews rigorously to horror formula, except when it comes to dispatching the baddies with visual aplomb. For a film that often dazzles with its production design, only a single death scene aspires to gonzo flair. And yet the film’s undeniable silliness is matched by a compelling sincerity. The script’s insistence on the sanctity of the relationship between an artwork and its creator, and even of the relationships among artworks themselves, is some woo-woo, death-to–“The Death of the Author” piffle. But Gilroy’s passionate advocacy for his ideas proves so unexpectedly infectious that Velvet Buzzsaw eventually develops a righteous, rousing kick.
Few satirical subjects are as easy as the art world, but Gilroy also manages to make his sendup feel like more than a series of potshots, while sketching a rough but convincing portrait of the corrupt system by which art fortunes are made or dashed. (A scene in which Gretchen attempts to strong-arm a museum into exhibiting her client’s new acquisitions so he can enjoy the tax breaks for his “philanthropy” rings spiritually, if not logistically, true.) Gyllenhaal is a particular hoot as an unplaceably accented, hyperarticulate obsessive who’s not as humble or honest as he believes himself to be. As the prime beneficiary of Gilroy’s verbal revelry (cf. the names), Gyllenhaal, a perpetually underrated comic performer, amplifies the goofy fun of rants like “I assess out of adoration! I further the realm I analyze!” Morf’s logorrheic seduction of Josephina (he describes her skin as “the most beautiful cross between almond and saddle brown”) feels hilariously doomed from the start, but the precise linguistic bouquets he tosses at the works he loves ultimately make his love of art seem genuine, even moving.
While Morf stalks the art scene, searching for his next aesthetic high, the leonine Rhodora enjoys a better lay of the land from her higher perch. “It’s a safari to hunt the next new thing and eat it,” she explains to an emerging artist (Daveed Diggs) she hopes to poach from his collective. Velvet Buzzsaw rails against this commodification with a high-minded fury that’s blunt but not undeserved. If it flings a few dozen elbows to make space for art that doesn’t want to be sold, or even seen, at least its big, open heart is in the right place.