Now with three movies under his belt screenwriter-turned-director Dan Gilroy has shown a keenness for creating and developing characters who march to the beats of their own unique and often idiosyncratic drums. We got that in 2014’s “Nightcrawler” and in 2017’s “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” Two very different movies concentrated on two very unusual personalities.
Gilroy’s latest is “Velvet Buzzsaw” and you could say it features a collage of these type of characters. Set as a snapshot of the bizarre and amoral Los Angeles art scene, the film relishes every satirical jab it takes at art culture pretension and pomposity. But it goes much further than that. Things really go bonkers in the second half where Gilroy turns it from devious art world parody into a wacky full-fledged horror thriller.
Gilroy’s centers his cadre of eccentrics around the freshly discovered paintings of a recently deceased recluse named Vetril Dease. The artwork is discovered by the opportunistic Josephina (Zawe Ashton) who smuggles them out of Dease’s apartment and into the hands of her cutthroat boss and gallery owner Rhodora (Rene Russo). Jake Gyllenhaal plays prominent art critic Morf Vandewalt, a prancing narcissist commissioned to study the Dease collection for Rhodora.
Those three prove to be the major players, but there are several other jaunty characters played by an interesting and talented cast. Toni Collette, Natalia Dyer, John Malkovich, Daveed Diggs, Billy Magnussen, and Todd Sturridge all find themselves playing a part in Gilroy’s twisted genre mashup. And once it is revealed that Dease’s art possesses a dark supernatural power, let’s just say you don’t want to be caught alone with one of his paintings (which conveniently happens a lot).
Making sense of “Velvet Buzzsaw” isn’t the easiest thing to do but I appreciate how it prompts us to try. I keep leaning towards the idea of jurgement. Could it be that the force/spirit within Dease’s paintings is judging the ruthless, depraved, art crowd miscreants? That’s a preposterous reading but I kinda like it.
While there is something fun about the nuttiness of it all and most of the performances (sorry Zawe Ashton) are really good throughout, those things can only take it so far. It’s hard to get into without spoiling things, but suffice it to say we never get a good sensible understanding of what is going on. It’s not so much the ‘whats’ but the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ that makes no sense specifically in the film’s second half. It almost feels like Gilroy had a cool and creepy concept but wasn’t exactly certain how to land it. That leaves us with a flawed yet peculiarly fascinating film. Kinda like Dease’s paintings themselves.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS