The relationship between critic and art is one fraught with dangers of compromise, hypocrisy, and a cynicism as deep as it is wide. “Art,” of course, applies to film, television, video games, and in Velvet Buzzsaw, contemporary works and paintings.
It’s not a stretch to assign writer/director Dan Gilroy’s satirical meaning to art of all forms, which makes his new Netflix film a particularly niche experience, where the horror elements come across as an add-on meant to interest a broader audience, not as the point of the story itself. If you’re going to break down the elitism of modern criticism, you might as well do it as a genre film to rub the salt.
Once again, Gilroy unites Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo after their previous collaboration in Nightcrawler (also a film where Gilroy revels in the underbelly private sector of L.A.). But the full cast is just as compelling: Toni Collette, John Malkovich, Zawe Ashton, Daveed Diggs, Tom Sturridge, Billy Magnussen, and Natalia Dyer. These actors make up a tight-nit ensemble of L.A.’s contemporary art scene, where famous painters negotiate with reps, museums, and buyers to expand their profile.
Morf (played by Gyllenhaal) is an outlier of this crowd because he’s a critic tasked with an enormous amount of power over the success and failure of massive art transactions. It’s an almost fantastical assumption that a critic of any form would have this much agency and influence, even in commercial art, but Gyllenhaal sells his ferocious eye with an embellished performance that reminds of his lovable villainy in Okja.
The story is truly instigated by Josephina (Ashton), a would-be protégé of Rhodora (Russo) looking to make a name for herself. After finding her neighbor’s dead body, she discovers his treasure trove of (until now) unseen paintings. The art world is immediately mesmerized by the body of work from this mysteriously deceased “Vetril Dease” (a likely unintended anagram for “devil satire”) and the film becomes a cutthroat competition between collectors and buyers trying to capitalize on the private psyche of a dead man, only to later realize these paintings contain a dark, haunting secret that may upend their lives forever in The Ring fashion.
Unlike Birdman, a film almost designed to appease critics while also questioning their very existence, Velvet Buzzsaw was seemingly made to upset just about everyone. Its characters are wholly unlikable, the script is a scattershot series of tonally distant WTF moments, and only about half of the horror content lives up to the other half. But as a whole, it’s a truly wonderful exercise in how stylish filmmaking can drive an uncomfortable point home, and one that most critics don’t want to deal with in an era where a film directed by a credibly accused pedophile is nominated for Best Picture.
Separating the art from the artist has gone from a video essay topic on YouTube to a cultural force on social media, dictated by a multi-faceted community of “very online” film influencers trying to improve the standards by which Hollywood rewards its makers. Velvet Buzzsaw is a film made for this community in some respects, giving them a tool in the arsenal to argue that works of art compromised by the sins of their creators can multiply and spread that toxicity when tolerated. Again, you don’t need a horror film to drive this point, but it helps to go all the way with the suspenseful consequences of sacrificing integrity for a quick buck.
It’s hard to say if Velvet Buzzsaw will ever be accepted by its intended audience on those terms. The polarizing message is just one piece of a larger, more grating experience considering the subject matter, but also one that demands to be studied and taken seriously. This is a more useful film as a rubric than it may be as sheer entertainment for some, which may actually be Dan Gilroy’s point.