Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

I went to the Tate Modern in London once. Modern art is easy to shit on, the philosophy of experimentation and willful disregard for tradition seeming to some haphazard, easy, cheap or just plain juvenile. That day at the Tate somebody had left a crumpled-up brochure on the ground, dead center of a pristine exhibit hall, and visitors would occasionally encircle it with hushed regard as they mistook it for art. It was the most surreal thing in a museum of exclusively surreal things, watching a piece of trash receive such vigilant appreciation.

Velvet Buzzsaw grips that inherently satirical premise and throttles it bloody. There’s a scene that almost recreated my day at the Tate verbatim, except it’s a dead body in a pool of blood that museum-goers believe to be a cutting-edge installation. Dan Gilroy’s follow-up to Nightcrawler is on Netflix now and stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Collette, John Malkovich and Daveed Diggs as critics, agents, curators and artists in the world of high-end L.A. art. When a mysterious artist’s work begins to gain posthumous acclaim, the sales and monetization of that work result in supernatural consequences for those involved.

Gilroy has an interesting theme here, one that at best feels like an indictment of those who care more about money than art. As art criticism on the whole roils in its new identity in the Internet Age, there are interesting snippets about the power of critique as well. And they’re related, of course — a bad review can sink a sale, force toiled-over art into dusty storage units, or even drive an artist away from the act of creation itself. With such strong and self-referential sentiments at play, surely there’s a consensus amongst film critics about the overall strength of Velvet Buzzsaw, right?

Yikes.

That wide-ranging spectrum (pulled from the public reviews board at IMDb) is mirrored by professional critics as well. Matt Goldberg’s review at Collider is dripping with nothing but praise:

Velvet Buzzsaw is a slasher movie with something to say. Some who stumble across it on Netflix may find it too bizarre or wonder why Gilroy is spending so much time introducing us to the cast of characters rather than getting to the murders promised in the trailer. But if you simply let the film unfold and accept it as a wild ride with some valuable insights, then Velvet Buzzsaw is a blast from start to finish.

Conversely, Kyle Smith’s National Review piece is by turns cautiously negative and explicitly defensive:

It’s true, critics can be insufferable. But with few exceptions we tend to be enthusiasts and nerds, not swaggering assassins in expensive suits. (Morf wears his over an immaculate white shirt buttoned all the way to the top.) Far from enjoying earth-shaking power — “In our world you are God!” Rhodora tells him — we don’t matter very much. Yet some Hollywood types keep blaming the weatherman for the rain.

Adam Neyman at The Ringer is just straight-up confused:

I’m just going to come right out and say it: Gilroy’s third feature has the basic shape of a Scooby-Doo episode.

And Brian Tallerico at rogerebert.com is at least aware that some of this divisiveness may in fact be intentional:

You know how a painting can look totally different depending on the angle from which you’re viewing it? The same thing is going to happen with Velvet Buzzsaw, and I think that’s exactly how Dan Gilroy wants it.

Personally I…don’t disagree? Shorn of anyone else’s opinion or of consideration of Gilroy’s oeuvre or even of an overt application to my role as a critic here on Motion State, Velvet Buzzsaw simply lacked the bite it should have had with such a great thematic set-up. There are interesting ideas introduced, but I’m not sure Gilroy engages with them on a level that really resonates. The movie may very well have “something to say”, and if the above smattering of reviews is any indication, discussion is certainly being had. But with the top-tier cast and sleek production design, a movie with as badass a title as Velvet Buzzsaw should probably come off as a primal yell rather than polite discourse.

That piece of trash on the white floor of the Tate Modern did what Velvet Buzzsaw fails to do: it commanded attention. I can’t say that I just happened upon the film as a museum-goer happens upon a truly moving work of art. I actively planned to write about Buzzsaw prior to its release, perhaps remembering that Nightcrawler was a movie that left me wanting to write about Gilroy and his art. There’s probably some self-defeating critic’s logic in that last sentence, and doubtless there are some who will chortle at how blind I am to the movie’s sharp teeth. But with so much powerful film out there I’m willing to bet Velvet Buzzsaw goes the way of most middling art, slipping into obscurity, a famous face and a cool title that you’ll glimpse on Netflix before you scroll right past it.

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