How does one review the movie about the murderous paintings? Velvet Buzzsaw, written and directed by Dan Gilroy, looks and sounds like some kind of satire; a takedown of art, critique, etc. After a few minutes, that’s how it plays. We meet Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) at Art Basel in Miami, an art critic of some influence who proceeds to rip apart an installation piece called “Hoboman,” a robotic rendering of a man asking for change and lamenting his invisibility. At the same show do we meet – deep breath – ex-punk rocker-now-gallery-owner Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), her assistant Josephina (Zawe Ashton, very compelling), competing gallery owner Joe Don Don (Tom Sturridge), legendary artist Piers (John Malkovich), up-and-coming artist Damrish (Daveed Diggs), installation man Bryson (Billy Magnussen), and museum curator Gretchen (Toni Collette).
Back in Los Angeles, the sense of witty commentary remains but shifts quite a bit, turning in on itself. Josephina discovers the body of a dead neighbor: an old man with a decrepit apartment full of beautiful, haunting paintings. Told the man has no family and had instructed that all of his work be destroyed, she instead takes the art and claims seller’s rights. Rhodora shoehorns her way into the deal and the pieces quickly become the talk of the town. Morf, in love with the paintings and momentarily transfixed on Josephina, begins doing research on the dead old man for a future book. As he investigates, so too does the rest of the art world. The man’s name was Vetril Dease, and his past is full of dark, horrible details. This is where things get weird.
Gilroy seems determined to poke fun at those that profit off of creativity while celebrating those who put their life into their work. One can certainly debate how seriously he’s taken the piece of art he’s made, but then why ruin the fun? There’s some kind of poetry to he’s made here: a trashy thriller set in the world of high art. Any lofty ambitions fall to the wayside in favor of a ludicrous (and ludicrously entertaining) performance from Gyllenhaal and some well-staged death scenes.
It’s a welcome diversion that works in tandem with the ultimate point: art doesn’t need to be one thing or the other. If it moves you, affects you, jostles you, it works. Those who attempt confine it lose themselves in the process. It’s certainly not a new or original take, but then this writer thinks Gilroy knows that. Velvet Buzzsaw may not be visionary, but it’s a ton of fun.
Velvet Buzzsaw premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and hits Netflix on February 1.
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