Cinematic Essence: Velvet Buzzsaw

Welcome to Cinematic Essence, where I critique both contemporary and classic films and discuss how they utilize narrative, mise-en-scène and other filmmaking elements to facilitate unique experiences. I avoid spoilers when I discuss recent films.

Considering that film is art and that I review film, I have begun to indulgently think of myself as a bit of an art critic. Naturally, the rational part of my brain finds little in common between myself and, say, New York Magazine’s Jerry Saltz. Nonetheless, because of my recent venture into the world of written criticism, I was intrigued to check out writer-director Dan Gilroy’s latest Netflix original, “Velvet Buzzsaw”—a satire of contemporary art criticism and connoisseurship.

“Velvet Buzzsaw” stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Zawe Ashton, Tom Sturridge, Toni Collette, Natalia Dyer, Daveed Diggs and John Malkovich. The film is set in the current Los Angeles art scene and focuses on its monetary aspects. Throughout the plot, rival art dealers furiously compete, collectors make bids for overpriced paintings. Young, fresh-out-of-art-school employees buy Starbucks for their bosses in hopes of quick promotions and critics publish reviews that make or break up-and-coming artists. The main conflict begins when an old, undiscovered painter — Vetril Dease — dies in his apartment and leaves behind a large number of incredibly alluring paintings. As dealers, collectors and critics fight over Dease’s work, each of them who made money off it slowly begins to die in unexplainable and gruesome ways.

The plot is oddly structured and thus drags at parts. I blame the unorthodox blend of genres for this unfortunate boredom. I will always celebrate an artwork for attempting something new, and in that respect, “Velvet Buzzsaw” — with its whirlwind of light-hearted satire and disturbing supernatural horror — is certainly as deserving of the term “avant-garde” as the paintings that are showcased in it. However, as the narrative progressed, I became increasingly convinced that throwing horror into the mix was a last-minute decision in the screenwriting process. The gory scenes stick out abruptly and the set-up that introduces them are always painfully obvious. A light will flicker, a door will close and out of the corner of your eye, you might just see Gilroy with a megaphone, shouting: “Brace yourselves, for we will now do a horror thing!” In short, most of the horror in “Velvet Buzzsaw” — although far from terrible when viewed out of context—feels forced and unfitting with the tone of the rest of the film; the blend is far from seamless.

Furthermore, the plot makes an attempt to become increasingly mysterious, but the mystery feels completely irrelevant to the continuous deaths and revelations are laid at the audience’s feet in choppy, information-dump sequences. As Gyllenhaal’s character researched Dease’s life and the hauntings, all I could think was: “Who cares?” And when I thought that his discoveries would at least come full circle in the end, I found no fulfillment. Perhaps I am missing something and should watch a “‘Velvet Buzzsaw’ Explained” video on YouTube. I am sure that someone has made one.

Although I have complained much about the film’s use of horror and suspense, I find no reason to condemn the satire and drama in “Velvet Buzzsaw.” I believe that the eccentric characters are well-crafted, even though there might be a few too many of them, to the point that audiences may lose track of the secondary parts of the plot. It is also obvious that much thought was put into the dialogue; the conversations in “Velvet Buzzsaw” truly bring out the pretentious and ridiculous nature of the caricatures that the film mocks. Most of the comedy and charm of this film stems from these conversations, and it all seems to work nicely. I also found some of the “scary” scenes quite comedic, although I was not sure if that was intentional on the filmmaker’s part.

Another element that shines in “Velvet Buzzsaw” is the acting. The film boasts an all-star cast, and the performances — particularly those of Gyllenhaal and Ashton — imbue the characters with life and make them compulsively watchable. Perhaps the broadest range is demonstrated by Ashton, whose character grows from a fresh, inexperienced employee to a greedy, major presence in the art world.

Overall, “Velvet Buzzsaw” is not a bad film. As I pointed out, it has several issues with pacing, tone and narrative structure. However, it is also a rather pleasant watch. If you are an artist, critic or contemporary art connoisseur but are also self-aware enough to stomach the satirical stabs in “Velvet Buzzsaw,” then I mildly recommend this film. However, if you are a horror fan looking for a movie that will evoke genuine terror, or even a fan of thrillers looking for some half-decent suspense, then I recommend that you skip this one. At least — as far as recent Netflix horror movies go — the hype around “Velvet Buzzsaw” feels, to me, more warranted than that around “Bird Box.”

Christoforos Sassaris is a third-year student majoring in English with minors in computer science and creative writing. PS868710@wcupa.edu

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