Velvet Buzzsaw is perhaps the first-ever art-world horror satire, but it has the feeling of a bawdy night at a mystery dinner or an anti-Establishment mummers play — and I mean this in the most complimentary way possible. Its colorful, uniformly narcissistic ensemble enter and exit in fabulous outfits as they weave a tangled web of money, sex, and influence, but we know we’re really just there to see who dies and how brutally. Writer and director Dan Gilroy is drawing from the same well of a bitter, morally compromised Los Angeles that he did for 2014’s Nightcrawler, but Velvet Buzzsaw, as gleaming and sun-drenched as Nightcrawler is dark, is even more of an invective, and even more operatically heightened.
Jake Gyllenhaal is the ostensible figurehead of Gilroy’s ensemble, a famed art critic named “Morf” for some reason, who toodles around between art fairs and galleries, his hand constantly posed just so under his chin, as he issues his much-sought-after takes on contemporary works. He has a live-in boyfriend, but he’s also chasing after Josephina (Zawe Ashton), right-hand woman to power gallerist Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo). “We have a taste relationship,” Morf explains when Josephina asks why he insists on tagging along with her to an Art Basel after-party. Morf has taste relationships with a lot of people, including Gretchen (Toni Collette), a museum curator turned private art adviser who starts leaning on him for pre-market tips on what to get her wealthy client to buy, and Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge), Rhodora’s rival and an even more craven hypechaser than her. There’s an economy of speculation and influence that fuels this ridiculous scene, and it all comes back to Morf, whose reviews can increase a work’s value tenfold overnight.
Then a body of work discovered by Josephina in her dead neighbor’s apartment enters this ecosystem, and quickly infects it like a pathogen. Morf becomes instantly obsessed (“ensorcelled,” in his words) with the personal, often disturbing, not-at-all trendy work; Rhodora wrenches it from Josephina with the promise of money and fame, and soon Vetril Dease (of course not even the dead guy has a remotely normal name) is the most talked about name in the L.A. art world. Morf, hoping to write a book on him, starts digging around and discovers a mysterious, disturbed life behind the paintings. Then people start getting murdered.
Velvet Buzzsaw is unabashedly supernatural in its horror, with mixed results. Scenes where paintings come alive and attack those who seek to profit from Dease’s work are more silly than scary, but others are deliciously grotesque. (Collette’s death scene is a bloody, riotous highlight.) The best, most hallucinatory sequence takes place in a sound installation, where Morf, already convinced that Dease’s work might be having an effect on his sanity, is tortured by the sound of his own critiques in a blue padded cell. (Netflix laptop viewers, wear your headphones.) All of this is terribly on the nose, but Gilroy knows subtlety would not be his ally in what amounts to a big, pulpy denunciation of the greed and cowardice that fuels any art market (including, of course, the one at which the film debuted). Everything from the visual effects to the costumes and caricatures (Catherine O’Hara’s Delia Deetz in Beetlejuice would fit right into this world) fly in the face of what one might call “taste,” because in Velvet Buzzsaw taste and its subsequent valuation is the beginning of a very slippery slope.
It’s a delicate intellectual argument made with the subtlety of a machete, which is why Velvet Buzzsaw ultimately feels so pleasantly perverse. But regardless of whether or not its argument works for you, Gyllenhaal’s Morf enters some kind of pantheon of quotably absurd characters alongside, say, Christopher Guest in Waiting for Guffman and all the Heathers. “I do a lot of Pilates and Peloton,” he intones seductively to Josephina. “The admiration I had for your work has — COMPLETELY — evaporated!” he bellows at Daveed Diggs’s street artist Damrish, his staccato syllables ricocheting off the poured concrete interior of a tastefully minimalist condo. It’s clear between this and Nightcrawler that Gilroy and Gyllenhaal have some kind of gonzo chemistry. Even if Velvet Buzzsaw starts to sputter slightly after it’s made its point, it’s plenty exciting to witness the incredibly specific madness they whip up together.