No one was expecting Velvet Buzzsaw to be A Nightmare on Elm Street set in the high-powered L.A. art scene, but that’s exactly what it is. It’s a pulpy, cheeky, and occasionally inventive excuse to take some shots at the art world in the same way that many horror movies often use death curses to punish teenagers for being young and dumb. Rather than making a movie like Nightcrawler with a straightforward change of setting, Dan Gilroy has redeployed that movie’s razor sharp dialogue, characterization, and performance into what is essentially a throwback to cheesy (in a good way) 80’s horror movies. The result is a bit bewildering, but also clever and just twisted enough to have some fun at its own expense. There’s a lot of room to chuckle along with this one, making it tempting to call it a horror-comedy outright.
Velvet Buzzsaw is not an especially scary movie, but it is a gleeful and clever one. The horror elements are mostly conceptual, more about fun and the thrill of a poetic death befalling someone that, in the logic of horror movies, has it coming. Horror movies are often a morality play and this is why the victims are often teenagers. In those movies, the older generation is trying to reclaim the younger from their perceived excesses and perversions. The punishment is about a reinforcement of values. This movie takes that exact approach to its art world figures and their power games. Recognizing that these aren’t real people, but symbols of broad personality traits, makes it fun to watch them succumb to their own corruption. At the same time, Gilroy doesn’t simply toy with the tropes while ignoring the structure. Viewers used to horror movies will be quick to understand the role Coco (Natalia Dyer) plays, for example, or just how classic the ending is.
Most of Velvet Buzzsaw’s running time is about its scathing critique of the art world. It’s definitely a horror movie, but these elements take time to build up until they’re cascading across the screen like a Final Destination clipshow. Until then, the focus is on a broad array of characters who each represent archetypes. We have the narcissistic critic, the seller, the sellout, the climber, and at least two different versions of the typical movie artist. These characters bring us into a closed off world, where art is really about money and status and where the rules and language are unique and occasionally alienating to the audience. The commentary isn’t especially deep, but it’s impressive in its breadth and the clever way it intersects with the movie’s handling of the horror elements. One example is that the art used in the movie is genuinely interesting and not generic stuff we have to pretend is unsettling. It genuinely is.
While his other recent films have been character studies, Gilroy is doing something different here. The characterizations are broad rather than intimate, but each one is provided with the detail and liveliness of performance that are needed to make them feel enough like real people (of some kind) that you’re taken in by the first half of the movie. When the camp and horror start to take over the narrative, the cast are all a step ahead and guiding the audience through the shift. Jake Gyllenhaal (the critic) and Toni Collette (the seller) are good at this, especially considering that they play two of the more colorful characters in the film. Zawe Ashton (the climber) and Rene Russo (the sellout) feel more grounded for the majority of the run-time, though their relationship slowly reveals another facet of the critique. Rounding out the cast are John Malkovich and Daveed Diggs as the resident artists. It’s intentional that they are relatively small parts of the story, making a point that the problem here is art becoming more about the people who evaluate and sell it than about the people who actually create it.
A major theme of the narrative is exploitation. The willingness to exploit is the key moral depravity that sets these characters up for their just desserts. Exploitation of art isn’t the half of it. There’s also exploitation of professional and personal connections, employees, addiction, youth, and even the dead. All of this exploitation is about money, which means it’s really about status, and thus presents a world that’s been cored out until there’s nothing authentic left. Emotions and experiences are reduced to affectations of taste, aesthetics, and pretension. All the stuff that art is supposed to be about gets processed into pithy one-liners and comebacks spat by people who, according to the movie, provide nothing to the world. Critiquing the movie is a strange exercise in exposure, since it has little forgiveness for the very idea of art criticism.