Good art is to die for. That’s the idea behind the engagingly outlandish Velvet Buzzsaw, which begins as a fang-toothed satire of the Los Angeles art scene and turns into something else altogether. The humor is wry and dry and enjoyably mean, and while the story’s more ridiculous elements eventually dominate, Buzzsaw’s never less than effortlessly watchable.
If you enjoy watching bad things happen to bad people (don’t lie—I know you gulped down both Fyre Festival documentaries last weekend), Velvet Buzzsaw gives you more than you bargained for, transforming into a not-particularly-scary horror movie whose appealing oddness and cruel humor goes down with disturbing ease.
It’s the latest from director Dan Gilroy, a seasoned screenwriter who made his directorial debut with 2014’s excellent, upsetting Nightcrawler and followed it with the underrated Denzel Washington movie Roman J. Israel, Esq.—both of which peeled back Los Angeles’s Tinseltown glitz to show us the worms wriggling underneath.
Velvet Buzzsaw is decidedly slighter than either of those, although for the first half-hour or so it looks like it might be an Altmanesque ensemble-driven comic thriller, with backstabs and double crosses and ice-cold scheming. Jarringly, a supernatural element takes over the movie, kicking any semblance of realism to the curb like a dumpster full of worthless paintings.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Morf Vandewalt, a pretentious art critic whose reviews can make or break a career, and his crisp meticulousness is akin to the obsessive photojournalist he played in Nightcrawler, although Morf is decidedly—and hilariously—more verbose. (He's someone who casually uses words like “ensorcelled” and “disquisition.”)
His Nightcrawler costar, Rene Russo, is Rhodora Haze, a cutthroat art dealer whose assistant, Josephina (Zawe Ashton), discovers a trove of hauntingly brilliant art made by a dead neighbor. The movie is rounded out by a fantastic cast, including Toni Collette (whose final scene here rivals hers in Hereditary), Daveed Diggs, John Malkovich, Stranger Things’ Natalia Dyer, and Billy Magnussen, who was so funny in Game Night but is underused here.
There’s almost too much talent on display for what Velvet Buzzsaw eventually ends up doing, but credit has to be given to the visual artists who made the pieces in the movie: One can fully believe art-world vultures would swoon over them, even as one scoffs at their pretentiousness; similarly, the dead neighbor’s spooky paintings are both unsettling and giggle-worthy.
While Gilroy’s attempt to integrate arch satire and The Ring-style horror never fully congeals, it’s pretty fun to watch the two halves bounce off each other.
Velvet Buzzsaw is now available on Netflix.