Netflix has lined up some tasty offerings for 2019. Next month alone sees Ben Affleck in Triple Frontier and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s first film as a director, The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind, with perhaps the most anticipated of all – Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman – looking likely for the second half of the year. But the first major offering out of the Original blocks is the sophomore film from writer/director Dan Gilroy, one that re-unites him with the Nightcrawler pairing of Jake Gyllenhaal and Renee Russo. And rejoices in the intriguing title of Velvet Buzzsaw.
Gilroy earned legions of fans, as well as an Oscar nod for Original Screenplay, for that first film, a satire/thriller/horror combo with the media as its main target. For Velvet Buzzsaw, he’s given us …… a satire/thriller/horror combo, this time with the art world in its sights. The mixture worked well first time round, why should he change it? After all, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t pull it off again. If only. Despite ticking so many boxes on paper, the end result is a film that just doesn’t know what it wants to be.
This time the setting is the elegant and superficial – at least, that’s how it’s portrayed here – world of art in Los Angeles. Gyllenhaal is Morf, a top art critic whose reviews can make or break a career in a single stroke of the keyboard. His increasingly jaded attitude towards the latest works is given the kick start it needs when girlfriend Josephina (Zawe Ashton) discovers her neighbour has died and that he’s left behind a massive collection of art – all painted by him. It’s distinctive, and different to anything else on show, so interest in him skyrockets and so do the selling prices of his paintings. But there’s something deeply malevolent about them and the body count starts to rise …..
There’s a domino theory of reasons why Velvet Buzzsaw is off target. Its choice of satirical target is a major one: the rarefied atmosphere of the art world is outside most people’s experience, in contrast to the one in Nightcrawler. We all consume the media in one shape or another, but not so art, which means that only the most crystal clear of barbs – that any love of art has disappeared to be replaced by love of money and that it’s a world where appearance is all-important – get anywhere near the bullseye. With the satire heading off course, it seems that Gilroy isn’t wholly sure what type of film he’s making: he’s included more horror this time, of the bloody and grotesque kind, while the thriller element is little more than a vaguely interesting puzzle. Your knuckles won’t change colour throughout.
What starts out as satirising a particular professional community – and a right cut throat lot they are too – sees its sense of direction dwindle and disappear, ending up as an untidy attempt at combining all three. And one that doesn’t work. It means that all the talent on show – not just the cast, but also cinematographer Robert Elswit who turns in some stylish work – is left floundering, despite their best efforts. Zawe Ashton has a deliciously cool, elegant screen presence and is so composed you start to wonder if she’s playing more of a part in the general mayhem than may be apparent. And Renee Russo and Toni Collette have some gloriously spiky scenes as two formidable agents/gallery owners: you wouldn’t want to cross either of them.
After promising much, Velvet Buzzsaw has neither of the smooth luxury or sharpness of its title. It simply doesn’t know what it wants to be or where it’s going which makes it, at best, a leisurely meander instead of the tingling ride it should be.
Freda Cooper | [rating=2]
Satire, Thriller, Horror | USA, 2019 | 1 February 2019 | Netflix | Dir. Dan Gilroy | Jake Gyllenhaal, Renee Russo, Zawe Ashton, Toni Collette, Daveed Diggs, Tom Sturridge, John Malkovich.