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Fear and Loathing and Fine Art in ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’

The new Dan Gilroy Netflix movie, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, is set in Los Angeles’s lurid art world. It’s one part satire, one part thriller, and all the way confusing.

Jake Gyllenhaall as Morf Vandewalt in ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’ Netflix/Ringer illustration

Dan Gilroy has a thing for eccentric protagonists. He likes to build movies around characters whose reach exceeds their grasp, and actors who go above and beyond the call of duty to play them. In his excellent 2014 debut, Nightcrawler, the writer-director conjured up a memorably creepy antihero in the form of Louis Bloom, an ambitious freelance videographer who goes from chasing ambulances with his video camera to piling up his own body count. Skeletally thin beneath slicked-back hair and ’80s-style shades, Jake Gyllenhaal etched a grotesque portrait of the sociopath-as-genial-go-getter—a dark embodiment of the power of positive thinking, motivated by the idea of motivation itself and seemingly oblivious to his own lack of professional (or human) scruples.

A few years later, Gilroy inverted the formula for the namesake of his directorial follow-up, Roman J. Israel, Esq, casting Denzel Washington as a cash-strapped lawyer suffering from an abundance of ethics. The titular protagonist’s problem was too much self-awareness; a kind of old-school alienation from the 21st century, when style has fully Trumped substance. This is signaled by Washington’s nervy, borderline-bizarre performance and an outlandish polyester wardrobe borrowed from a ’70s courtroom thriller.

In both Nightcrawler and Israel, talented actors were given free rein to inhabit their richly conceived—if strategically exaggerated—roles, and the results were rich character studies that doubled as award-season showcases. Washington’s legal savant act was Oscar-nominated, and Gyllenhaal was robbed. The mix of strained politeness, brazen manipulation, and internalized, incel-style self-pity as Lou blackmails Rene Russo’s news director into a professional and sexual arrangement in the scene below is as good as acting gets.

It’s a fine line between genius and shtick, and I’m not sure which side Gyllenhaal lands on in Gilroy’s new Netflix-distributed comedy-horror movie Velvet Buzzsaw—a movie that is itself about the difficulty of discerning between art and kitsch. In terms of sheer technique, what Gyllenhal is doing is extremely impressive, swapping out Lou’s frightening vacancy for a man who’s almost too happy to live in his own head—a swaggering, imperious art critic who has to look at a high-end installation piece for only five seconds before uttering a definitive, publication-ready pronouncement about its artistic (and financial) worth. (“The biggest waste of steel since the Titanic.”) Is it too much that this character, who speaks in fey, staccato cadences suggesting Christopher Walken with a subscription to Artforum, is named Morf Vandewalt? Probably, and yet that first name feels perfect, considering the totality of Gyllenhaal’s physical and behavioral transformation. With each dry line reading and precise, elongated physical gesture, he morphs into a flesh-and-blood New Yorker cartoon.

The ability of a well-connected, well-spoken critic like Morf to make or break careers—and to wield that power like a claw hammer on behalf of or against his friends and enemies in L.A.’s sprawling, incestuous gallery community—is the subject and satirical target of Gilroy’s script. As targets for parody go, the art world is low-hanging fruit, and Velvet Buzzsaw leans into its setting’s capacity for caricature, surrounding Morf with figures almost as self-consciously stylized as he is. These include Toni Collette as a congenitally covetous curator, John Malkovich as a superstar artist in paunchy decline, and Russo as a gallery owner whose long-ago foray into music gives the film its title. Her “Velvet Buzzsaw” tattoo memorializes her stint in the fictional, groundbreaking post-punk band of the same name. (A great auditory gag: This ex-punk has become so gentrified that her ringtone is Beethoven.) Superb actors all, and Gilroy has given each of them a long, diamond-studded leash to strut their stuff. In a milieu where everybody is literally or figuratively posturing, is it even possible to go over the top?

If Velvet Buzzsaw had stayed in its lane as a giggly snapshot of art-world power plays—with Morf’s mix of aesthetic authority and interpersonal shadiness as its focal point—it might have been a minor, enjoyable farce.

For one thing, it looks gorgeous, boasting gleaming, Exit Through the Gift Shop cinematography by the great Robert Elswit, who gave Nightcrawler its neon tint and Israel its New Hollywood grit; Velvet is also superbly designed, both in terms of the art within the movie (an animatronic hobo is a surreal highlight) and the variably cluttered and pristine interior spaces on display. (The costumes are terrific, too, all coruscating Magic Eye patterns and bespoke accessories.) But beyond his fascination with actors being extra, Gilroy’s major interest is combining satire with genre: Think Nightcrawler’s deliberate, Tangerine Dream–y evocation of Manhunter and Israel’s organized-crime subplot, which gave the character’s moral arc life-or-death stakes.

Here, Gilroy goes even further, using Morf’s sometimes-lover Josephina (Zawe Ashton) (“We have a taste relationship,” he tells her before they sleep together, after which he skitters back to his boyfriend) as the entry point into an adjacent ghost story, the cheesiness factor of which is, by the way, off the charts. After an elderly tenant in her building dies of a stroke, Josephina enters his apartment and discovers a cache of extraordinary paintings that mesmerize Russo’s typically reserved Rhodora. She in turn acquires and exhibits them, but the paintings are—stop me if you’ve heard this one before—haunted by some kind of evil force associated with their late creator.

I’m just going to come right out and say it: Gilroy’s third feature has the basic shape of a Scooby-Doo episode. And even if the mashup of self-consciously pretentious drama with bargain-basement scare tactics is the point of the enterprise—hybridizing genres for kicks, or more cerebrally, to point out their basic incompatibility—the results are, at best, self-defeatingly clever. At worst, they’re just boring. It’s one thing to introduce an undercurrent of the supernatural to an ostensibly realistic story, but for that to work, a filmmaker has to have their whole heart in depicting the uncanny. Gilroy—who has the chops to work up suspense and dread, as in Nightcrawler’s chilling crime-scene tableaus—botches this part of the assignment. Once it becomes apparent that Velvet Buzzsaw’s ensemble is as big as it is because the characters are there to be picked off one by one by the dark forces bound up in the paintings, the film settles into a boring, predictable rhythm of fatal set pieces, a few of which are relatively inventive and gory. Despite multiple opportunities, Velvet Buzzsaw never fulfills its scenario’s 21st-century giallo promise; even Luca Guadagnino’s misbegotten Suspiria remake, a more pretentious and exponentially less enjoyable movie, got better mileage out of CGI gore.

There is, admittedly, something potent and poetic to the idea that a painting draws its power directly from the blood, sweat, and tears of the artist. And it’s satisfying to watch Morf’s lofty, hyperbolic rhetoric bounce back on itself, as he goes from being exhilarated by the paintings to driven progressively mad by their presence—a two-sides-of-the-same-coin-conceit that Gyllenhaal invests in with just enough campy currency to work. Morf isn’t quite the hero of Velvet Buzzsaw, but he offers the best reason to stick with it after Gilroy’s script has exhausted its repository of good, nasty one-liners (“go fuck yourself and lose my number”) and rhetorical points about complicity and commodification.

Morf is also Gilroy’s built-in defense mechanism against bad reviews. The character’s obnoxious presence—and regular bouts of arrogance, paranoia, and hypocrisy—offer critics a distorted, unflattering mirror image of their own practice. Not only does this eagle-eyed aesthete start questioning his perception (resulting in an eye exam that forces him to temporarily don “heinous” Louis Bloom–style sunglasses), but in the most harrowing (and hilarious) scene, this word-slinger’s own eloquence gets weaponized against him, one withering critique at a time. But while Gilroy can imagine the idea of art so powerful and personal that it can haunt—and kill—his own movie is harmless. I’m still not sure what a velvet buzzsaw is, but a glossy, expensive designer item that’s too soft and luxurious to cut too deep sounds about right.