Are you familiar with the work of the 20th century French-American artist Marcel Duchamp? His readymade sculpture “Fountain” — literally a urinal signed “R. Mutt” — is considered a landmark piece of avant-garde art. I’ve seen it in person, in an actual museum, and it makes me cringe now as much as it did when I saw it back in 2006 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s the kind of stuff that still goes on in the contemporary art scene — critics praising “geniuses” who produce art that is all concept, no craftsmanship (to be fair, Duchamp was questioning the adoration of art with Fountain.) Velvet Buzzsaw, written and directed by Dan Gilroy, lampoons the art world that makes giants out of artists like Duchamp, but it’s just as hollow and vacuous as the very scene it satirizes.
Jake Gyllenhaal, who starred in Gilroy’s acclaimed 2014 thriller Nightcrawler, plays critic Morf Vandewalt, a tastemaker in L.A.’s art scene. The story takes off when Morf’s friend and lover Josephina (Zawe Ashton) finds the dead body of a man named Vetril Dease (what even are these names?) in her apartment building. After learning that Dease was an artist, Josephina goes into his apartment, where she finds a treasure trove of the man’s strange paintings. Sensing that they might be of value, she steals them and shows them to Morf and gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), who scheme to sell Dease’s odd artwork to the public. But little do they know that Dease had a mysterious past and that the paintings are more than meets the eye.
It’s the setup for a Twilight Zone episode or, more appropriately, Night Gallery — what if art could kill?! — but Velvet Buzzsaw lacks the thoughtful social commentary of either program. The movie wants to be a smart satire of the modern art scene, but it doesn’t spend enough time mining that idea. There are a few funny bits, however. I smiled when a gallery owner said that a piece was “remarkable” only to find that it was actually just a pile of garbage bags. And Gyllenhaal gets to utter some pretentious artist nonsense: “I was floating in the ocean and, for this incredible moment, it felt like I had tapped into a primal consciousness — a connection to the word in its purest form.” That made me laugh.
Gyllenhaal is fun to watch as the awkward, self-serious Morf, but here’s the big problem: he isn’t even the protagonist. Nobody is. This movie has no protagonist. Morf gets a lot of screen time, and he’s the most interesting to watch, but he is one of several characters who have no major arc or really do anything interesting. It’s fun to see Toni Collette as Morf’s curator assistant Gretchen (her wig is legit) and Stranger Things star Natalia Dyer as Rhodora’s former assistant, Coco, but they are tertiary characters with little to do.
Velvet Buzzsaw also lacks that most important element of genre fiction storytelling: a strong plot. The “concept” is there — evil paintings kill — but it’s not executed well, nor does it offer any real surprises. More grievous, it fails to deliver on promises made to the viewer, and breaks its own rules and story mechanics throughout. Why is art that Dease didn’t create killing people? Things just happen without any rhyme or reason.
For a movie literally about the merits of visual art, Velvet Buzzsaw looks more like a TV show. I kept waiting for shots that either underscored the emotional tenor of a scene or simply looked cool, but they were few and far in between. There were, thankfully, some spooky visuals throughout. Oil paintings come to life, as do animatronic hobos, and the effects are convincing and suitably creepy (you’ll never want to stick your hand into a metal sphere after watching this, that’s for sure.) In addition, the score by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders is playfully spooky. I love that title music.
Velvet Buzzsaw wants to be a satire of the shallow, nose-in-the-air modern art scene and a supernatural thriller — and I believe a movie in that vein could be done effectively — but it doesn’t deliver on either fronts. The satire isn’t sharp enough and the scares are been there, done that. There are some evocative images throughout and Gyllenhaal puts in a fun performance, but that’s not enough to make up for the huge narrative shortcomings. Velvet Buzzsaw is nicer to look at than a urinal signed “R. Mutt,” but like Duchamp’s “Fountain,” I won’t be rushing to see it again anytime soon.
John Brhel (@johnbrhel) is an author and pop culture writer from upstate New York. He is the co-author of several books of horror/paranormal fiction, including Corpse Cold: New American Folklore and Resurrection High, and the co-founder of independent book publisher Cemetery Gates Media. He enjoys burritos and has seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom way too many times.