"Creativity plays in the unknown."
Along that same line, I feel that Dan Gilroy's junior film, Velvet Buzzsaw will leave many audiences divided and struggling to oscillate between enjoying the campy Giallo horror or being disappointed by the utterly hollow and forced commentary. With such a wonderfully niche market of a plot, Nightcrawler under his belt, and my main man Jake Gyllenhaal playing Jonathan Van Ness playing the most pretentious Letterboxd art reviewer...it was impossible to control my hype. A film with the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Collette, John Malkovich, and Daveed Diggs following a trail of killer artwork in Los Angeles? What's not to hopefully like! Alas, I must sadly say I was disappointed by Velvet Buzzsaw as a film and vapid critique of art and how society perceives worth and value. However, I do not detract from the fully invested hammy performances that Gyllenhaal, Russo, and Collette's platinum wig brought to their characters and this wannabe meta world. But as stated by a critic in the film, "It's an iteration. No originality. No courage. My opinion."
Velvet Buzzsaw (Buzzkill) is a confused yet intriguing story around mysterious, unexplained murders occurring around the Los Angeles art scene. I purposely avoided all the trailers for this film to maintain every single drop of suspense and comedy a surprise, and in the latter's case, it succeeded. I found myself laughing a lot throughout the film, which left me pondering whether Gilroy was intentionally aiming for laughter in a killer art film? Thus arises my first concern, that of the tone trying to be reached. Velvet Buzzsaw dabbles in a variety of genres, but most predominantly in horror and comedy. These two primary tones clash through the 2-hour runtime, set to the backdrop of a very forcibly hamfisted meta-world. The comedy permeates absolutely every scene, because the three characters who are actually trying, really get into the absurd pretentiousness. Even some of their names give you a preview of their eccentricities, such as Morf Vandewalt (Gyllenhaal), Rhodora Haze (Russo), Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge), and Coco (Natalia Dyer) who is briefly called "Rococo"....get it because it's an art style, and movement?! Gyllenhaal, Collette, and Russo are hilarious and have truly blessed us with a large enough supply of meme artwork to fill Twitter's response and reaction gif gallery for months. But this comedy really overshadows what should have clearly been a strictly horror-centric story. What Gilroy establishes is not only a living breathing hollow fragment of the art world and critique in how we view, judge, assign value in art, and how it can literally consume us and those around us. There's a brilliant story in that aspect, but that's something done much better in shades of Nocturnal Animals and The Devil's Candy. It'd go as far to say that it had elements of giallo film and that even then, it has been done much better with Blood and Black Lace. I enjoyed when Gilroy leaned into the horror aspects of the film, but he never truly committed to it as much as I know the characters did. There's nothing particularly scary in presentation, and I can assure you that the haunting existential thoughts I have staring at Francisco Goya's, "Saturn Devouring His Son" or Edvard Munch's, "The Scream" are much more horrifying and lingering.
Rene Russo & Jake Gyllenhaal in Velvet Buzzsaw, photo by Claudette Barius, courtesy of Netflix
There is an incredibly evident pacing and tone problem with Velvet Buzzsaw. This struggle to find its identity and commit to what works permeates throughout the entire 2-hour runtime, causing a majority of scene transitions and character discussions to either come off incredibly laughable or on the border of philosophical intrigue (mainly Gyllenhaal). Morf can easily transition from saying the certified meme fresh, "Critique is so limiting and emotionally draining." to attending a funeral and stating out loud, "What is with that cheesy organ music?! What colour is that casket? Smog orange? Did he buy it on sale? Seriously, imagine being buried in that for eternity." There is no smooth transition between both fields, and it completely ruins any chance of eerie suspense or slow burn horror as the characters obsess more and moreover the art. We witness Josephina's emotionless struggle at the discovery of her boyfriend cheating on her, then cut to Morf debating the intricacies and validity of colour as a vivid spray of emotion and skill against a white palette. After he places his hand into a new interactive sensory art installation, he expounds his emotions, "I was floating in the ocean. And for a moment, it felt like I had tapped into a primal consciousness. A connection to the world in its purest form." Which is then abruptly responded by Josephina's, "I'm through dating artists, they're already in a relationship." The blaring contrast between these two lines shows a definite struggle for tonal balance and a fair share of cringe-worthy lines. And it's further amplified between the two characters' following scene together. A straight to DVD romcom scene where Josephina flirtatiously pulls Morf's hand under her dress, as an airplane engine roar is audibly heard offscreen. That scene is occurring to the non-diegetic borderline-erotic music. It's in these moments that repeatedly occur, that the horror comedy just begins tearing at its own seems. It's not something impossible to achieve, but it does require complete dedication to function, or else it just results in campy or just plain bad. In this case, I do believe that Gilroy has failed to successfully get his message across in the exact manner he might have intended.
Had Gilroy gone with a more psychological horror approach, many lines could have been delivered and read in such a light, carrying more weight and lingering themes. But his mercurial plot leaves you laughing at one scene, then immediately awaiting for suspense and horror in the next. A sense of dread that the horror scenes never fully allow to reach climax. I reckon even Final Destination, or maybe even Donnie Darko managed to ride that border more successfully. But alas, many will enjoy it as pure entertainment, not even stressing over the missed opportunities for true meta-critique of how we look and feel about art, and how ridiculous the necessity for dominance in who's say is worth more. Like art it is all in the eye of the beholder, in my case, I expected a much more clever script that really delved into the toxic narcissism and destruction of self in art. So to me, it failed. I can't speak on behalf of the director/writer, but I feel confident that he did not intend on Velvet Buzzsaw being released as a, "so bad it's good" comedy you watch with friends and drinks. And yet, he has the advantage of benefitting from the conflicted responses, able to decide which side to take, purposeful hilariousity, or failed satirical critique.
Jake Gyllenhaal in Velvet Buzzsaw, photo by Claudette Barius, courtesy of Netflix
Let's touch upon this whole art critiquing art. I can see how some might think it has depth, nuance, and great commentary to the likes of film review. And while subjective, I found the entire meta attempt to be vacant, obvious, lackluster, and pretentious. Now that brings us to a perplexing crossroads dilemma because those adjectives can and are applied to art and the artist or reviewer at all times. So was this a deliberate and artistic choice that Gilroy made? It's in this stark dichotomy that arises the divide amongst audiences. You either enjoyed the film for its possibly deliberate uber-pretentious satire like a 90s horror comedy, or you were severely let down by how forced and uninspired Gilroy's attempt at a witty critique of the art form resulted. I am in the latter because I expected this film to follow in the light of the superb, Nightcrawler, not only in quality and performance, but in its commentary of how society as a whole has been desensitized to violence and unknowingly yet voluntarily molded by the media. Velvet Buzzsaw is undoubtedly pretentious, and I admit that it was a deliberate tone, to establish the holier than thou narcissistic characters. But it was hard to gestate how such a potential vehicle for pinky up commentary crumbled down into lackluster and severely predictable horror tropes. Where was the art and creativity that they so established early on? The few scenes tinged with horror are where my interest peaked, and not because they were shot or lot well. I entertained the thought that Gilroy would have delivered some bona fide artistic dread with the imagination. The feelings I get from my imagination staring at Andrew Wyeth's, "Christina's World". I admire paintings, and I often find myself seated at a museum to clear my mind and palette. Yes, exactly like those loners who you might see sitting directly in front of a massive Mural. It's a calming and silent place to do some self-processing and to filter out thoughts in exchange for the pleasures of hopeful revelation. But just as equally can you really get deep down into the existential bowels of your own abyss with select works of art that truly evoke raw emotion, arouse the nerves, and send the hair on the back of your neck up. These are the goosebumps I not only wanted, but demanded from Velvet Buzzsaw. Like Morf states upon discovering Dease's cursed yet brilliant artwork, "An artist toiling in the recesses, discovered in death. I want to begin researching immediately!" That is the tone and aesthetic I had hoped, now wished the film had gone down. The simple story behind the mysterious, "The Anguished Man" speaks volumes of haunting compared to this film.
Now, while the eccentric and over-the-top performances are the saving grace of the film, I was not a fan of the comedic scenes. To me they came off as flat and confusingly out of place, only lifted to entertainment by the great performances by some. Jake Gyllenhaal has a complete field day with his role of Morf, the David Ehrlich art scene equivalent that could make or break your art with one sentence. We all know just how magnificent Gyllenhaal is at morphing (comedy drum) into his roles, and it's no surprise that he completely disappears into this prolific critic. A critic who would easily be found recommending which pieces of art American Psycho's, Patrick Bateman should buy. Everything from his hand gestures, the way he places his glasses, his speech intonation, and even how he walks. It's new, and it's unique to the role. But above all else, Gyllenhaal continues to bring out what I like to call ocular acting. An aspect of acting where the eyes do most of the talking; a particular trait that I find Gyllenhaal consistently excels in. Certainly, a missed opportunity to include something to pair with his first name, though. Nevertheless, it is a welcome addition to his rogue's gallery of prolific characters. I also go as far to say that Gilroy's wife and proven actress, Rene Russo delivered a demanding role as Rhodora, head of the best gallery in town. Lastly, while very minimal I did enjoy when Toni Collette and her Sia wig were on screen. It's a damn shame that they still did not allow her to use her natural Aussie accent. The rest of the cast is easily left by the wayside, as they range from useless, emotionless, frat bro, and wasted. Don't worry about attaching the adjectives to the character, because I'll do it for you without spoiling anything of course. The off brand Zooey Deschanel, Natalia Dyer, was rather useless, having no pivotal arc and literally only one plot function. The shockingly emotionless Zawe Ashton stuck out beside every other actor and actress, delivering her lines with such monotonous boredom. I'm baffled that she got such a lead role opposite Gyllenhaal. If only her time was allotted to more Collette. Fratbro most obviously attaches itself to the always typecast, Billy Magnussen. Wherein he plays an airpod wearing self-proclaimed true artist who just happens to be working as the art installer. And last but not least, John Malkovich and Daveed Diggs were utterly wasted. The only reasons I saw this was because Dan Gilroy has proven himself prior and because it had my main man, Jake Gyllenhaal. But I l am beginning to think that Gilroy had a one-hit wonder with Nightcrawler because his directorial pursuits have been downhill ever since. I can safely say that if you want to enjoy a unique and arguably memorable performance, go ahead and give it a view for Jake. That's about it.
Toni Collette & Jake Gyllenhaal in Velvet Buzzsaw, photo by Claudette Barius, courtesy of Netflix
The last section I'd like to cover is the technical aspect. While the script felt like a first unedited draft at times, and the musical score was nonexistent, there was a much more heinous reveal. The most shocking discovery of Velvet Buzzsaw is not in its obvious deaths and absolute vacuous rift of suspense, but that its Director of Photography was Robert Elswit. Let that sink in for a moment, it sounds familiar, right? That's right, the same guy who handled cinematography for the likes of There Will Be Blood, Inherent Vice, Punch Drunk Love, M:I Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation, and Nightcrawler. And yet, Velvet Buzzkill looked like a film you would watch on the tele?! From generic establishing shots that do about as much as a show coming back from a commercial break, aerial views of the city that remind me of GTA:V character swapping, to lackluster pans of characters walking across a gallery. Not even the actual killer art came off as creepy or disturbing in the slightest. There was potential to make it demented and gradually progressing in its horror, but Gilroy sidestepped each opportunity to create tension, in exchange for a lot of exposition. I blasted all over Twitter, that under the hands and eyes of Nicolas Winding Refn or David Lynch, this film would have been a certified cult classic. That said, both have already produced quality entries in the same vein, whether it be the likes of Mulholland Drive or Neon Demon. I am speechless and quite baffled that for a film that had almost triple the budget of Nightcrawler, it looked and felt this bland. Triple! Three times as much the budget, and probably no restriction from Netflix...and this is the result? That's a Buzzkill. I rewatched it to make sure my eyes weren't deceiving me from my insomnia, but I do not get any vibes of picturesque shots or a painting aesthetic. The most artistic it gets is in the intro's visually appealing recreation of a Gianluigi Toccafondo animation. This same animation which just so happens to spoil every single death in the film...At this point, I'd like to thank any of you who made it all the way through this vitriolic piece. This was a considerable venting exercise, and it might be the first film I've had to rewatch before writing my official review. It's not a thinker at all, quite the opposite. It's so disappointing that it left me speechless and alone with my boiling thoughts. And with a simple glance at the Film Twitter timeline, it became evident that Velvet Buzzkill may just have usurped the throne for most devise film of 2019. If it were a painting, that would probably be a success in the eyes of the artist, and till this very sentence, I'm unsure whether or not that was Gilroy's intention with his latest art entry. But there is a strong chance that this will become a cult film, garnering a fanbase later in its aging. One thing I can guarantee about the film is that it's largest legacy will be in the pictures and gifs it has provided to the internet.