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Lithium ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’ is only charming if you let it be

Feb. 11, 2019
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Velvet Buzzsaw is the latest entry in the ever-growing list of movies that were adored until they were released. Boasting direction and writing from Dan Gilroy, best known for his gritty debut Nightcrawler, and a lead performance by Film Twitter favorite Jake Gyllenhaal, this satirical art-world horror had inevitably been the subject of excited pre-Sundance chatter. Its biggest scare, however, is not its gore or its plot twists, but its almost universal critical denunciation. 

While the trailer did hint that this would be a straight-up horror flick that couldn’t be more different from the psychological dread of Gilroy’s first feature, audiences were still disillusioned with the campy and trope-infested final product. The satire leans more on parody than commentary, and Gilroy puts a stellar ensemble at the center of a fascinating premise that he quite literally puts to death. At first glance, Buzzsaw is lost potential, an empty shell of a movie that holds back from hard-hitting critique and resorts to caricature. 

But perhaps the fact that this film is wrapped in misconceptions that it ultimately subverts underlines its message even more. Whereas Nightcrawler dissects the insidious underbelly of local news by diving into extremes, Buzzsaw criticizes the hypocritical emptiness of the highbrow by approaching it with apathy. Gilroy built a realistic reiteration of the contemporary art scene, even consulting with various advisers to ensure the accuracy of jargon, only to show he doesn’t care much for it. The “goodness” of art is arbitrary, and the art world has always been driven not by talent, but commerce and elitism—and what better, and frankly unexpected, way to say this than with a campy horror premiering on Netflix? As Gilroy pointed out in an interview with Polygon, “We were fine with being trope-y. He [Vetril Dease, the supernatural antagonist of the film] was in a mental institution. He bathes [in] his own blood. We’re not breaking any new ground here, but we were never trying, because there’s a kitschy element to it.”

Buzzsaw is strongest when viewed without the preconceived notion that it would be a harrowing commentary like the director’s previous efforts. It is not so much a critique of the art world as it is a mirror, echoing its shallowness and indulging in its pretentiousness. And that’s what makes it satisfying—it’s camp, it’s mindless fun. The art scene is inaccessible and yet it’s presented to you here in all its elitist glory, where people are literally dying because of greed, and in the most outrageous ways too. Characters who would kill to get the priciest museum pieces die at the hands of the art they wished to commodify. 

The dialogue is sharp and witty, with a sense of self-aware absurdity (Twitter is already having a field day with Billy Magnussen’s Bryson saying, “I’m not just a man of primitive skills” while wearing AirPods). The star-studded ensemble play mostly outrageous archetypes, and they shine despite the shaky character work. Gyllenhaal yet again proves that he is the master of treading the line between sane and insane, and the dynamism of his character’s superficial pseudo-friendships with the rest of the cast propelled the otherwise draggy first act. Rene Russo and Toni Collette, Gyllenhaal’s cohorts, breathe life into underwritten characters. Zawe Ashton, playing the protege to discover the cursed paintings, steals the scene with a nuanced performance that could have easily fallen to snooty and naive. 

The idea for the film was formed, according to Gilroy, when he walked through an empty contemporary art museum and thought, “Man, this would be a great place for a horror movie.” He wanted to create a horror movie set in an art museum, and that’s exactly what he did. Is it a fully-realized analysis of art and commercialism? Not really. But did it provide the degree of entertainment I was looking for when I pressed play on a ridiculous art museum satirical horror on a Friday night? Definitely. Most viewers remain adamant on their negative reviews though, and I’m in the minority here, so I guess there’s nothing left to do but watch it for yourself. Critique is so limiting and emotionally draining, after all.