Sundance Review: VELVET BUZZSAW Is A Fun Disappointment

Get those expectations in check.

It’s hard to resist anticipation with a movie like Velvet Buzzsaw. A slasher film directed by Dan Gilroy that reteams him with Rene Russo and Jake Gyllenhaal? And it satirizes the art world? It demands to be seen.

But those hoping for anything approaching the quality of Nightcrawler are in for a disappointment. Velvet Buzzsaw isn’t horrible. It’s funny, has at least one good kill scene, and is of course stacked with good lines and performances. It is also surprisingly middle of the road, not quite thought through and even a little bit boring.

The story takes place in LA’s high art scene, where everyone is a tough-talking asshole who wouldn’t survive a single visit to Target. Jake Gyllenhaal plays mighty art critic Morf Vandewalt (oh god, that name), an exalted figure who can make or break the careers throughout his industry. As such, he has the ear of everyone, including high profile agents like Rene Russo’s Rhodora Haze (that name too!) and her underling Josephina (Zawe Ashton - this time the actor's real name is the fun one), who he is also sleeping with behind the back of his boyfriend, Ed.

One day Josephina finds an older tenet of her building collapsed and dead on the floor. Upon hearing that he specifically requested all his effects be destroyed upon his death, she investigated his apartment and discovers a treasure trove of immaculate artwork that will net her a fortune. It will not surprise you to learn this art is vaguely cursed and begins murdering all those who profit from it, which is basically everyone.

Which is fine as everyone in this movie is an asshole. That’s certainly not a dealbreaker with a slasher film, but because Gilroy is making a high-profile slasher film, we spend way too much time with these miserable people and their problems before the film really gets going wiping them out. There are also too many of them. Again, that’s part of supplying a death count, but a couple characters (namely those played by John Malkovich and Daveed Diggs) take up valuable time without contributing much to the plot. Gilroy could have overcome this by leaning on the horror aspects but he’s far too timid with the kills. The only exception loses points for being a bit too derivative of Phantasm to truly impress.

But like I said, Velvet Buzzsaw is a medium film, not totally bad. The script, while feeling a bit rushed structurally, is filled with great, hateful and whiny lines of dialog throughout. It succeeds mostly as a comedy about horrible people who get what they deserve. The nicest character, played by Stranger Things’ Natalia Dyer, gets the film’s greatest running gag, and it’s hard not to love Gyllenhaal when he starts to get unhinged. The various dings at the art world range from obvious to sublime; all are appreciated though.

We all freaked out when the Velvet Buzzsaw trailer hit. The movie does not approach that hype, but it isn’t a total loss either. Its Netflix release seems appropriate as it’s worth seeing but not if viewing it requires much effort.