“Ricky got drunk and crashed his car last night,” a gallery attendee tells renowned art critic Morf Vandewalt. “He’s in a coma.”
“I heard he was crushed,” the person’s friend adds.
“By the car?” Morf asks.
For anyone else who was ensorcelled by the trailer for Velvet Buzzsaw that dropped last month, I bring good tidings: Netflix’s art house arthouse horror movie, from writer-director Dan Gilroy, is every bit the Final Destination–meets–The Neon Demon hybrid the trailer suggested—half kitschy art-related horror, half a bespectacled Jake Gyllenhaal decrying the realm of criticism as “so limiting and emotionally draining.”
In the world of Velvet Buzzsaw, art comes at a great personal cost, and those who try to profit from it should be prepared to suffer the consequences—meaning, death via haunted paintings in increasingly ludicrous fashion. The whole enterprise is more meme than movie, and the campy delights of Velvet Buzzsaw hinge on its memorable cast of quirky characters. They’re all over-the-top members of the high-end art community, with—somehow—even more over-the-top names. (Morf Vandewalt is an all-time great movie name.)
In honor of Velvet Buzzsaw, and considering how much all the characters care about their social stature, it only felt right to rank everyone in descending order of memorability, level of intrigue, and meme-ability—which basically doubles as a descending list of increasingly absurd character names. Spoilers ahead.
In the Velvet Buzzsaw art world, Piers (John Malkovich) is a living legend in the midst of a great slump—like pre-2018 Tiger Woods searching for another elusive major. The problem for Piers, which he admits, is that he’s been unable to reclaim his artistic mojo after going sober. (At the beginning of the film, Morf admires one of Piers’s works, which another character notes was painted during his “full bloom of alcoholism.”)
To help shake Piers out of his funk, renowned gallerist Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo) lets him stay at her beach house to create something original, just for himself. It’s an important (if not very overt) message Velvet Buzzsaw is trying to convey: Creating art for yourself should always trump making art for profit. (Piers is one of the few characters who isn’t killed by a haunted painting for a reason.) Unfortunately, that means Piers is on the periphery of the story, where he gets much less screentime and remains decidedly less interesting than his campier peers. That said, it is nice to cap off an artistic bloodbath with Piers calmly making lines in the sand over the end credits. Even as the waves slowly wash away his art, my nirvana-reaching dude couldn’t care less.
The plot of Velvet Buzzsaw kicks into gear because Rhodora’s up-and-coming assistant Josephina (Zawe Ashton) discovers a treasure trove of gorgeous paintings in the apartment of an old man who dies in her building. Instead of destroying the art, per the deceased painter’s request, she takes them all from the apartment and uses the pieces to launch her own lucrative career as a gallerist.
Indeed, Josephina gets rich, but her colleagues quickly begin to drop like flies. Compared to some of her peers in the art scene, though, she’s a far less eccentric character, which makes her a bit less compelling. Her best dynamic is a “taste relationship” she has with Morf (in other words: they hook up and like analogous art pieces!). The most creative thing that happens to Josephina is, naturally, her art-related death via watercolor paint from a graffiti exhibit that subsumes her body and turns her into a street-art installation. (I’m not sure how else to describe this.)
Damrish (Daveed Diggs) is an erstwhile homeless man who becomes a renowned street artist, someone who’s en vogue while sober Piers’s status in the art community wanes. Except, like Piers, Damrish ultimately cares about the sanctity of art and doesn’t succumb to greed—a big reason he, too, survives Velvet Buzzsaw.
Damrish also vapes a lot, and inadvertently creates a riff between Josephina and Morf after sleeping with her. He’s extremely nonplussed about the fight that breaks out in Josephina’s apartment the night after he and Josephina hook up, which you can see in this iconic, nude pepper-grinding shot after she says she wasn’t “particularly obsessed” with Morf.
Would hang—and I guess, uh, vape?—with Damrish.
His name is Bryson, he wears AirPods, and he’s played with a douchey energy by Billy Magnussen. Of course Bryson sucks, and of course he dies. He works at Rhodora’s gallery, essentially as a handyman, but waxes on about his own artistic predilections. When transporting some of the valued (and haunted) art into storage, he can’t help but open up a crate and take a piece for himself. Big mistake, Bryson.
His body is never found, which makes sense, considering he was attacked and sucked into a painting composed of several ravenous chimpanzees; only a few cigarette butts and his AirPods are left behind, which I think means that Velvet Buzzsaw is the first film to use goddamn AirPods as a plot device. All thanks to Bryson.
It’s a testament to the greatness of Toni Collette that Gretchen—who has silver hair and TERF bangs—doesn’t look totally absurd, and may in fact be kinda attractive. (I’m not saying I’m crushing on Gretchen, but I’m not not saying that, either!)
But that’s almost beside the point, because Gretchen seems like a nightmare boss to work for—she’s really mean to her assistants, and doesn’t even hold the door for them when they’re carrying large boxes. She’s very catty, which works to her advantage in an industry where everyone has a propensity to shade someone one moment and compliment them the next, like some messed up Russian nesting doll. To wit: She and Morf act like besties one minute, and the next he’ll shout “GRETCHEN IS A BITCH!” after she tries to sabotage his “taste relationship” with Josephina. Anyway, Gretchen sticks her hand in a sphere at an installation, and the sphere eats her arm and she dies. I knew her for just over an hour, and yet at this moment I nodded to myself: “Classic Gretchen.”
5. Vetril Dease
OK, so Vetril Dease isn’t really a character so much as the source of everyone’s torment. He’s the mysterious painter who dies in Josephina’s building at the beginning of the film. What we find out about Dease is quite sinister: He might’ve tortured his own abusive father, and his canvases might’ve been painted with actual blood. It’s all the kind of stuff that screams: These paintings could be evil and haunted.
But that’s not why Dease belongs here. He belongs here because of the way his name is pronounced, and because I’m convinced Velvet Buzzsaw is a two-hour “deez nuts” joke. (I’m far from the only Dease-Deez Nuts truther out there.) Characters start shouting “it’s Dease!” when people begin to die mysteriously, practically daring you to finish the line. No character has more importance to the interactive nature of Velvet Buzzsaw than Vetril Dease.
4. Rhodora Haze
The second-best name next to Morf Vandewalt, Rhodora is a big-shot gallerist who used to be part of a punk rock band called Velvet Buzzsaw, which she also has tattoo of on the back of her neck. Rhodora is perhaps the single biggest influence in this movie, as she convinces Josephina to let her procure Dease’s art, and then intentionally keeps the majority of his paintings out of public view so that the few pieces available hold higher value. (She also owns a hairless cat, which I appreciated; it feels like a power move since those mostly seem to be owned by cartoonish movie villains.)
More than anyone else, Rhodora represents the greed inherent to the film’s art community—that she used to be a rock goddess for a seeming indie-ass band called Velvet Buzzsaw speaks to the transformative power of capitalism. Naturally, then, she’s not safe from Dease’s wrath. In macabre fashion, her tattoo—itself a work of art—comes back to bite her.
Nevertheless, what a dope name. I’m going to get it tattooed on my body. No, I have not learned any lessons from watching this movie.
3. Jon Dondon
Rhodora’s biggest gallerist rival, Jon (Tom Sturridge), looks like half the dudes you find in Williamsburg—and I can’t stress this enough, his last name is DONDON. But unlike Rhodora, who at least has a solid understanding of what constitutes good art, my guy Jon Dondon hasn’t got a clue. In one of the film’s best moments, Dondon tries to convince Piers to let him represent him—and when he visits Piers’s warehouse, mistakes a literal pile of garbage for artwork.
It could be read the other way—that what’s deemed fine art can be synchronous with trash, and none of this actually matters—but I also like to think Gilroy was primarily dunking on Dondon. Dondon wasn’t safe from takedowns even after his untimely, painting-induced death: Morf literally dunks on the color of his coffin.
Coco (Natalia Dyer, a.k.a. Nancy from Stranger Things) is the only pure thing in Velvet Buzzsaw. A Michigan transplant, she’s a lowly assistant—first for Rhodora Haze, who fires her unceremoniously—who bounces between different jobs, and, unfortunately, keeps losing those jobs, while also stumbling upon dead bodies. Seeing the corpse of someone you know is definitely traumatizing it and of itself—running into three dead people, all of whom were giving you gainful employment when they were still alive, is next-level tragic. By the time Coco runs into her third, and final, body, she screams in exasperation: “Oh, fuck me!” Unsurprisingly, Coco’s propensity to find dead bodies in the film has become something of a meme.
Here’s hoping Coco—as a Velvet Buzzsaw survivor just trying to make a damn living—gets herself a steady job, some therapy, and perhaps a nice spa treatment. Even Hawkins, Indiana, would be better than this.
1. Morf Valdewalt
Somehow, inexplicably, Morf Valdewalt lives up to the absurdity of his own name. Peak Weird Gyllenhaal is in full effect here, as Morf seduces Josephina by telling her he stays fit doing “pilates and Peloton,” believes “a bad review is better than sinking into the glut of anonymity,” and will dish out a blog in his luxurious home while completely naked:
Even if Velvet Buzzsaw ultimately sinks into the glut of Netflix original content, the essence of Morf will live on in perpetuity. Not since [checks notes], well, uh, Okja, has Gyllenhaal gone this off the rails in a film. I suppose there are two lessons to take out of the Velvet Buzzsaw experience: Keep giving Jakey G some weird Netflix movies to flex in, and do not ever mispronounce the word melancholy in his presence.