Plain, Simple Tom reviews . . . “Velvet Buzzsaw” (2019)

Nightcrawler writer/director Dan Gilroy re-teams with actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo in this mesmerisingly dark tale about art fighting back against unfeeling critics and scheming gallery owners. In it, Gyllenhaal plays art critic Morf Vanderwalt who comes into possession of several unique paintings, created by a deceased artist who is revealed to have had a particularly disturbed mind, and as they circulate around the art world and various galleries and collectors, including the ruthless and single-minded Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), the disturbing paintings begin to have a peculiar effect on those who look upon them and soon, the rich and powerful elite members of the art world endure some particularly nasty fates.

The first half of Velvet Buzzsaw is when the film is at its best because straight off the bat, we see actors like Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo and Toni Collette sink their teeth into their roles and to have fun playing these obnoxious, scheming and self-obsessed members of the art world who swish into scenes and take no prisoners in their quests to advance their own interests and what’s great is that the cast seem to be having a certain amount of fun playing these conceited people without overdoing it or making them truly detestable – they’re just determined, slightly uptight, glory obsessed people and the actors’ clear awareness of the characters’ foibles and flaws are what prevents them from being unintentionally awful. Like the characters of Nocturnal Animals.

The film also succeeds in the first half because there is a delicious aura of mystery and eerie unease as the pivotal paintings are revealed to the world and as the experts fawn over them, we get hypnotized right along with them and clearly get the impression that there’s a malevolent spirit at work with sinister plans for the phonies who gaze upon the pieces. Gilroy effectively shows the unveiling of the artworks from the perspective of the paintings themselves and often goes on to follow the characters as they saunter around the galleries, accompanied by a tantalizingly hypnotic score from Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders; moments like this, when we revel in the knowledge that there’s an evil presence in the art and that something bad will happen to these snooty people, make us see things from the perspective of the “evil entity” and though this, we can revel in the darkness and horror of it all.

But while the first 50 minutes or so make Velvet Buzzsaw a hypnotically tantalising mystery/thriller (one which I’m sure would be my kind of film), after a certain point, interest starts to wane as Gilroy crams in a few too many side stories and unnecessary characters and it can get a little confusing (to me, anyway) to work out who’s a critic, curator, agent, artist, dealer, gallery owner or whatnot and some characters blend into the background and aren’t really that interesting; John Malkovich’s character is particularly inconsequential and his talents are wasted in this.

The film also takes a slight tonal shift into straight-up horror and in so doing, things get a little obvious and formulaic because soon, it becomes all about the characters being killed off in ways that you’d expect from any common or garden horror film and as such, the film can’t seem to avoid certain tropes and clichés such as flickering lights, unexplained, far-off noises, projectors turning on by themselves and a glaringly obvious scene involving a giant sphere; granted, the final sequences are original and a bit disturbing (especially one involving dripping paint and a wall mural) but this shift into horror 101 takes away from the originality of the feature.

For the most part, Velvet Buzzsaw has an original and imaginative story and its primary intention is to show all of the scheming, backstabbing and ruthlessness that takes place in the art world and to take a dark jab at self-interested, overly harsh and uncaring critics and those who don’t truly appreciate art but instead seek to exploit it for fame, power and personal gain. For Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, in particular, it’s about realising the error of his ways and the consequences that his blunt criticism has on other people.

But on the other hand, all of that is slightly undermined by the horror element (it actually doesn’t really matter if they all learn their lessons or not) and even though Gilroy has something to say with this film, the writing doesn’t have the impact that it should have – it may not be a story that you’ll remember for too long – and the unnecessary side stories muddy up the narrative too much.

Velvet Buzzsaw has another intriguing Jake Gyllenhaal performance at the centre and as Morf, he’s entertainingly flamboyant and waspish, using that expressive face and those bug eyes to great effect and working well with his character’s biting dialogue – the best moments being his scathingly witty putdowns at a funeral and an opticians. In addition, when things start to go wrong for him, he convincingly appears to lose his mind as he manically descends into desperation, madness and fear.

Elsewhere, Rene Russo plays a very similar character to the one she played in Nightcrawler – the cutthroat and harsh boss type who cares about nothing but results – and the great Zawe Ashton has the most noticeable character arc as she starts off as an innocent and unassuming assistant but when she discovers the paintings, she gets sucked into the art world and becomes as heartless, arrogant and merciless as those around her.

Although it gradually loses focus and becomes hindered by both unnecessary characters and horror movie tropes, Velvet Buzzsaw is still a hypnotic and tantalising mystery with another strong Jake Gyllenhaal performance at the centre.

★ ★ ★ ★

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