Art Attack

‘Velvet Buzzsaw’ Slices up the Snobs

I saw the Velvet Buzzsaw movie, now streaming on Netflix. Jake Gyllenhaal plays an art critic with a six-pack who believes that he’s influential but he’s really just a tool. Rene Russo sells art, Toni Collette buys art, and Daveed Diggs and John Malkovich make art. They’re all assholes, one way or another. And boy, do they get what’s coming to them.

An ambitious young art dealer portrayed by a bad actress stumbles upon a lost cache of genius paintings in her apartment building. A deeply-disturbed man has died, leaving instructions to burn all his paintings. Instead, she steals them. They’re  Henry Darger-like, except dark and evil and full of pain. So Darger times Francis Bacon, divided by Edvard Munch. Everyone tries to cash in. Except that the art has a mind of its own.

VELVET BUZZSAW ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Dan Gilroy
Written by: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Collette, Zawe Ashton, Daveed Diggs, John Malkovich
Running time: 113 min.


So there’s the premise of Velvet Buzzsaw: art that kills people. Director and writer Dan Gilroy, who also made the weirdly dated journalism satire Nightcrawler with Gyllenhaal, doesn’t deviate from his idea. It’s Final Destination, but for greedy snobs. The whole thing plays like arch satire. One of the “great” pieces of art is a giant mirrored sphere into which people stick their arms. Malkovich has lost his mojo and can only paint colored blobs onto canvasses while an army of employees makes gift-shop toys of his work on the ground floor. No one even pretends to hide their lust for money and status. Russo, once a rock-n-roll icon in an 80s band called Velvet Buzzsaw, lives alone with a hairless cat in a modernist and neighborless mountain home far above L.A., like an art-world Dr. Evil.

Interestingly, it’s not the found paintings themselves that actually do the killing. Instead, they activate other art, any art at all, to perform the evil deeds. And the targets are very specific. They don’t kill people who buy art, or make art. Only people who profit from art deserve to die. So the movie’s not really a satire on contemporary art itself. That’s too facile. People still make great art. It’s a weak and easy target to say “my five-year-old could have done that.”

I look like Fred Armisen

Instead, this movie makes very specific fun of the art business, the art market. It’s no accident that the opening sequence takes place during Art Basel in Miami, the art market’s bloated temple to itself. Artists traffic in sweat and pain and hard-fought inspiration, whereas the people who run the art market live like lords in high-ceilinged lofts.

Because Gilroy’s satire is so harsh, and so arch, the movie lacks emotional impact. Not one of the characters feels remotely sympathetic. And Zawe Ashton, who gets a lot of screen time as the woman who discovers the terrifying art cache, is terrible. Among a sea of seasoned pro movie stars, she feels like she stepped out of a Matt Smith-era episode of Doctor Who. But Velvet Buzzsaw will definitely make you look at art in a different way the next time your spouse forces you to go to the opening. Maybe that’s the point.

This concludes my review of the Velvet Buzzsaw movie.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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