'Velvet Buzzsaw': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Bloody funny games in the art world.

This dark comedy reteaming writer-director Dan Gilroy and star Jake Gyllenhaal, who previously collaborated on 2014's 'Nightcrawler,' will hit Netflix next month.

The vultures of the art world get their own bones picked clean in Velvet Buzzsaw. This mordantly amusing and withering view of the tastemakers, dealers and speculators who make and break reputations and drive up prices rolls along on the catty conversation of its denizens and the strange mystery of a reclusive dead man who has left behind an extraordinary, hitherto unknown body of work.

The final third grows repetitive to reductive ends, but this dark reteaming of writer-director Dan Gilroy and star Jake Gyllenhaal after the 2014 Nightcrawler will no doubt attract considerable audience attention on Netflix next month in the wake of its Sundance premiere.

Certainly the pretensions and affectations of the world of galleries, art openings, auctions and the like are easy to mock, and Gilroy jumps right in with a big Miami show that has attracted the creme de la creme of the bitchy and pretentious nationwide.

At first exposure, top prize might go to veteran Los Angeles gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), whose cutting edge hasn’t dulled over the years and who carries an air of superiority to rival that of any old dame to be found in Wilde or Shaw. Also on hand are rising agent Josephina (Zawe Ashton), promising but still in need of some refinement, and veteran curator Gretchen (Toni Collette), while California art critic and author Morf (Jake Gyllenhaal) minces about uttering declarations while showing discernment in his commentary about what’s on display. It’s all somewhat amusing but rather arch.

The jockeying for position continues back in L.A., where Morf, highfalutin as always, switches gears to hop into the sack with Josefina. But far more important is her accidental discovery of a vast collection of artworks left behind in her apartment building after the death of an old man named Dease.

From the bits we see of the work, it’s stunning and extensive, some of it very dark in the manner of Francis Bacon, others in varied styles. When Rhodora and Morf behold it, they at once recognize its greatness, whereupon the jockeying to win the right to display it, write about it and sell it becomes tense, a matter of one-upsmanship above all else.

Josephina, who has now taken Morf to her bed, would seem to have the right of discovery on her side, but Rhodora is well practiced in riding roughshod over any obstacles, and never more so when an artistic discovery is made. The fact is that the late artist made it clear that he wanted any of his creations left behind to be destroyed — he was a deeply troubled man who used his art to deal with his demons, not for the edification or opinions of the public. He simply died before he got around to destroying his work himself.

This is an interesting topic and theme that warrants serious debate in and of itself — artists owe nothing to anyone and are free to do whatever they want with their creations. But it can be argued that sometimes artists have to be talked down from cavalier, dismissive or senile positions about their own work; they can be wrong or simply careless about it.

Unsurprisingly, the arguments for preservation and, more significantly, greed prevail, which is where the film takes a little trip over to the dark side. Without spoiling anything, it’s safe to say that Gilroy relishes the prospect of having poor, late Dease have his revenge against those with the gall to disregard his wishes. Having him do it time and again works to diminishing returns, especially when one of the getting-back episodes far exceeds the others in imaginative gore and shock value.

There’s enough fun, writerly glee and actors enjoying their little rampages to make Velvet Buzzsaw a decent distraction for a couple of hours, but also something of a schizophrenic case all its own.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production: Netflix
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Collette, Zawe Ashton, Tom Sturridge, Natalia Dyer, Daveed Diggs, Billy Magnusson, John Malkovich
Director: Dan Gilroy
Screenwriter: Dan Gilroy
Producer: Jennifer Fox
Executive producer: Betsy Danbury
Director of photography: Robert Elswit
Production designer: James D Bissell
Costume designers: Isis Mussenden, Trish Summerville
Editor: John Gilroy
Music: Marco Beltrami
Casting: Victoria Thomas

114 minutes