2014's "Nightcrawler" was one of the big sleeper hits of that year. Though initially a box-office failure, word-of-mouth quickly spread and the film was able to rack up a $30 million profit by the end of the year. Earning praise for a chilling performance by Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou and Dan Gilroy's screenplay, the film put a renewed spotlight on both the actor and writer/director. Now, the duo has returned in "Velvet Buzzsaw," a supernatural horror film being released by Netflix. Can the duo pull off a second hit?
After the death of a previously unknown artist, his works are discovered by Josephina (Zawe Ashton), an employee at an art gallery. The paintings are put on display and become an instant hit, enticing industry professionals to purchase them. However, strange, supernatural things begin to happen, resulting in the deaths of several people. Art critic Morf (Gyllenhaal) is also there.
Let's get the good out of the way first. The opening credits are legitimately good, being presented in a surreal paint animation which is visually pleasing and acts as a teaser for the forthcoming film. The performances are all great, with Gyllenhaal probably giving the best one. The film does well in making you immersed in the tropical atmosphere of upper-class Miami; the sets are all slick and clean, the characters are all shallow socialites and the lighting brings out the heat of the city during the day or night. The paintings by the dead artist are actually well-made. With cynical imagery and rough line work, the homage to Spanish painter Francisco Goya is obvious and a treat for fans of the artist.
The fundamental problem with "Velvet Buzzsaw" is that it doesn't seem to know where it's going. It obviously wants to be a commentary on the world of modern art, but it also wants to be a supernatural horror mystery. It was entirely possible to combine all of these themes into a seamless narrative, but the film instead switches between them. One minute, we're focusing on the politics between art critics, curators and the artists themselves. Then, we cut back to supernatural paintings trying to kill people. And the large amount of characters in the film makes it difficult to focus on just one plot.
An ensemble cast wouldn't be a problem if any of the characters had a core motivation. However, for most of film we're just watching people doing stuff rather than doing stuff for some greater purpose. This, in turn, is because the film doesn't have a main character or any characters the audience can connect with. Every character in the film is "inside baseball," so to speak. They're all experienced critics, artists or curators. There's nobody to transition the audience into the world of modern art, so we're just left disconnected from the characters.
I feel bad for picking on Gilroy since this was a project he was really invested in, but his talents as a writer and director just don't align with a supernatural horror film. His skills lie more in brooding drama and creeping suspense rather than actually scaring the audience. While many of the visuals used in the set pieces are striking and creative, they're not particularly scary. This is mostly because of the setting; it is possible to make a supernatural painting scary, but it's still extremely difficult. A much more fitting premise for Gilroy would've been an art critic going crazy or maybe a mystery staring a detective navigating the art world for clues, sort of like an art version of "The Third Man." This would've allowed for a relatable lead to introduce us to this chaotic, pretentious world.
Besides the critique of modern art, the film has more universal themes in mind. The characters address ideas like just making art for yourself and not for display and the invasion of the supernatural on a mindset driven by materialism. Unfortunately, these themes are only addressed and then pushed off to the side because they have little to nothing to do with the main plot.
Despite the admirable ambition and effort put in by everybody involved, "Velvet Buzzsaw" fails to make any significant impact. The lack of narrative focus and tangible goal makes an hour and a half feel like a waste of time in which nothing actually happened. I suppose if you didn't have any expectations going in it might be a mildly entertaining curiosity. Otherwise, can't recommend.