Let me paint you a picture of the Los Angeles art world. Everyone is greedy and cruel and soulless. The creators are exploited. The dealers profit. Millions of dollars are spent on literal garbage.

This is the setting of Velvet Buzzsaw — along with pretty much every movie ever made about the art world. A great cast and a fairly clever turn into the realm of horror can’t redeem what otherwise feels like a very familiar, very safe piece of satire. The characters in the film scoff at the art they find stale or derivative, which might work as an ingenious meta-joke if it seemed like the film was even the slightest bit in on it.

At least the character names are fun: Jake Gyllenhaal plays Morf Vandewalt, an influential art critic; Rene Russo is gallery owner Rhodora Haze, whose hated rival is one Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge). Morf and Rhodora have a mutually beneficial relationship. She gives him access, he gives her great press. Their comfortably chummy arrangement changes when Josephina (Zawe Ashton), one of Rhodora’s employees (and one of Morf’s former lovers), discovers the dead body of a neighbor — and then hears from her chatty landlord that his apartment is full of treasures that are all headed to the dumpster. She breaks in, discovers the work of an undiscovered master, and claims it all for herself.

Velvet Buzzsaw
Claudette Barius/Netflix

Everyone wants a piece of Josephina’s find: Morf wants exclusive rights to write a book about this reclusive genius and Rhodora demands a cut of the profits. It’s only later, once terrible things start happening to every person who comes in contact with the dead man’s art, that Morf begins to investigate his background and origin. It turns out he could be a murderer who maybe kinda sorta used human tissue in his paintings. Whoopsie!

From there, Velvet Buzzsaw morphs (morfs?) into more of a Final Destination-style slasher, where the phrase “killer work of art” becomes an extremely literal concept. A few of the characters’ ghastly demises are inventive — and everyone onscreen is so thoroughly venal it’s easy to actively root for their comeuppance — but a lot of the spooky sequences all blur together. For a movie set in the dynamic world of high-end art — and for a film shot by the gifted cinematographer Robert Elswit — Velvet Buzzsaw is strangely drab.

Velvet Buzzsaw

Writer/director Dan Gilroy garnered great reviews with his pitch-black look at the L.A. paparazzi scene in Nightcrawler (also starring Gyllenhaal, who has a lot of fun playing the pompous, over-the-top Morf). Then he stumbled with Roman J. Israel, a character study about an idealistic lawyer who loses his way. (You can draw your own parallels between filmmaker and subject.) All three of Gilroy’s directorial efforts are of a piece; Los Angeles tales about morally compromised men seduced by the promise of wealth and power. Even with its novel, bloody twist, though, Velvet Buzzsaw feels like a guy rehashing ideas he’s explored before — and other filmmakers have as well.

Watching Velvet Buzzsaw, I was repeatedly reminded of Art School Confidential, Terry Zwigoff’s merciless 2006 comedy about this same milieu. While Velvet Buzzsaw eventually spins off in that unusual horrific direction, the two movies’ set-ups and perspectives are nearly identical — right down to an outsider stumbling upon a murderer’s disturbing yet strangely compelling art work, passing it off as their new discovery, and becoming an overnight sensation. (Both movies even feature key supporting turns by John Malkovich; in Art School he plays a weary art professor, while in Velvet he’s a weary artist. Talk about an actor with range!)

The key difference between the two films is that Art School Confidential really did take a buzz saw to the art world, with savage, take-no-prisoners humor. It used to be available on Netflix, too; back when the company was less obsessed with cranking out its own original programming.

Velvet Buzzsaw will be available on Netflix on February 1.


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