In the cutthroat world of Los Angeles’ modern art scene, up-and-coming Josephina (Zawe Ashton) discovers a series of vivid paintings by a recently deceased and unknown artist. Once the paintings go on sale, a supernatural force begins to enact revenge on all involved.
Boasting an impressive cast and stylish direction, Velvet Buzzsaw promised a self-aware and scary dive into the art world’s sin and self-indulgence. Instead, what we got was barely-palatable satire about art killing dislikeable caricatures. This was a problem the director would have to tackle from minute one – horror and satire don’t mix well when trying to generate rounded characters and real scares. Some films, like The Cabin in the Woods, cajole you to root for its stock characters because they still boast some unique characteristics. We know they are just a thematic point to prove – but suspending this thought, even momentarily, so the viewer can share empathy, is key to good self-aware horror. Dan Gilroy’s film never achieves this balance, the heavy-handed lampooning rendering the characters as nothing more than a list of common, irritating traits.
It’s a shame, as the cast assembled have the ability to add nuance to otherwise aggressively one-dimensional figures. Jake Gyllenhaal brings the twitchy campiness from his last Gilroy film (Nightcrawler) to art critic Morf Vandewalt but does little to sell him as having depth. Toni Collette and John Malkovich are under-used as an ambitious art dealer and pretentious artist respectively. Rene Russo coasts as bitchy art gallery owner Rhodora Haze but her performance never gets out of first gear. Meanwhile, ostensible lead Ashton is nearly background material as put-upon gallery receptionist Josephina. Too little is contributed by too many to lift Velvet Buzzsaw above forgettable.
This mediocrity extends to the script. Horror films require a specific formula of emotional peaks and troughs – too many scares and viewers become desensitized, too few and the script becomes dull. Gilroy’s film is guilty of the latter. It takes too long to build tension, and once we get going there is very little done to sustain this energy. Some of the deaths are memorable – one towards the film’s climax was certainly eye-catching. Many more are random, our disinterest in the events fuelled by a lack of connection with the characters. At no point do you really root for any of the characters to survive the supernatural odds. That was Velvet Buzzsaw’s point – to punish those who commoditise art in the name of greed. However, because the characters don’t experience any approachable moral doubt, we forgoe empathy and instead just tick off deaths as if cataloguing in a gallery. The film would likely have benefited from developing viewer investment in the character’s fate through more horror elements earlier on.
Visually the film is only slightly better. Horrors like the recent Suspiria remake used a vibrant base colour palette to intrigue and disorient. Velvet Buzzsaw was the perfect candidate for something similar, but instead offered very little to draw the audience temporarily out of the story.
A line from the film sums up my feelings well. Gyllenhaal’s preening Vandewalt pretentiously squawks; ”Critique is so limiting and emotionally draining!” My word count restricts me from saying more – but I am drained, and not like after watching something terrifying, following Velvet Buzzsaw.
What could have been a stylish nightmare with tongue firmly in cheek turned into a dull, shrill parody of itself. 5/10.