The search for essential meaning in any art you create can be like the creation of a mandala: Once the shape seems perfect, your next step can only be to annihilate and start anew. Maybe it’s just a meandering path to madness, a violent jumble of ideas and insistences of which you’re never truly certain. Or maybe it will … bring you to a point where the monkeys in a painting you’re staring at will come to life and kill you.
All of these things occur in Velvet Buzzsaw, a playfully punitive horror-satire streaming today on Netflix. The film represents a demon that has been impishly and entertainingly exorcised from the mind of writer-director Dan Gilroy. He took inspiration for this quite-literal bloodletting at the intersection of art and commerce from the abrupt, unexpected end of his work writing a Superman screenplay in the 1990s. At one point, there’s a piece of art meant to be violated, via choose-your-own-orifice symbolism, by the observer’s fist. Velvet Buzzsaw is never subtle, but it also doesn’t simply stop at a clunky caricature of modern art as an incestuous, insipid space worthy of derision. It ponders the value, or virtue, of art for the artist’s sake.
Even during its most garish pivots into comedy or horror, Velvet Buzzsaw remains very much of a piece with Gilroy’s 2014 classic Nightcrawler and 2017’s tremendously underrated Roman J. Israel, Esq. Like those films, Velvet Buzzsaw is still a compelling examination of ethics and ideals cast on the slag-heap. It’s another opus of outstanding comic timing from its star, Jake Gyllenhaal. And it’s also … well, a truly enjoyable movie about paintings that kill people — sort of like if Olivier Assayas made a Tales from the Crypt episode.
Josephina (Zawe Ashton) is an aspiring art impresario who stumbles upon an unexpected goldmine after Ventril Dease, an elderly man in her building, kicks the bucket. Turns out Dease’s place is stacked with his original artwork. To use the prose of her art-critic fuck-buddy Morf Vandewalt (Gyllenhaal), Dease’s work represents “a howl for answers and a revolution that never comes.”
Yes, you absolutely can create a top-10 list of best Gyllenhaal one-liners from Velvet Buzzsaw alone; other contenders include “I do a lot of pilates and Peloton,” “I advance the realm” or “The admiration I had for your work has COMPLETELY evaporated!” As chameleonic and charismatic as ever, Gyllenhaal rolls up like a boss from the beginning — the exact opposite of Lou Bloom’s deceptively meager demeanor in Nightcrawler but no less voracious about consuming his prey. There is no high ground Morf will leave unclaimed, even at a funeral, and he sweatily articulates even his eventual breakdown with adjectives you can tell he hopes are not only persuasive, but so exclusive as to seem from the mind of a true genius.
As a man forced to reckon with his own heartlessness and haughty self-regard, Gyllenhaal’s aggravations are perfectly pitched. Plus, he finds a surprisingly comedic, and pathetic, way to carry himself as a man whose cool veneer chips away. Near the end of the film, we suspect we’re seeing the real identity — a corn-fed kid who never felt like he belonged anywhere until he headed west, started calling himself Morf Vandewalt and figured he’d made it once someone believed that was actually his name.
Morf’s breakdown begins as he starts investigating Dease’s past and interrogating his work — all canvases of anguish and violence, like Caravaggio crossed with Metallica album-cover art. It doesn’t help that there’s a shocking surplus of death happening to those who could profit from public displays of Dease’s art. Morf and Josephina could be in danger, as well as Josephina’s cutthroat boss (Rene Russo), a curator chasing a Dease payday (Toni Collette), an underground artist on the verge of a big break (Daveed Diggs) and a legendary painter searching for inspiration (John Malkovich, finally in a good Netflix original about things that kill you if you stare at them).
This ensemble has a high time with Velvet Buzzsaw’s self-flagellant sense of humor, ecstatically elevating all of their dialogue and playing to the hilt this mix of has-beens and wannabes, pretenders to the plush and punks gone posh. Gilroy always finds the proper mixture of tone — right down to the hapless ingénue who keeps finding the corpses — and presents a sensorily heightened vision of Los Angeles as an ever-widening fissure of dangerous light, heat and energy.
Gilroy understands that, in our own ways often far from the art world or even creative expression, the middle fingers of youth give way to daintily upraised pinkies of comfort that’s difficult to give up. That, in the manner of this film’s title, the softest touches and kindest cuts intend to leave impressions and marks. That when our weaknesses are exposed — or, as envisioned here, our torsos ripped open — it’s often easy to wonder what all this goddamn toil has been for. If a Superman movie, and Gilroy’s creative certitude, had to fall apart for a while, that’s a small price to pay for such a generously gory, outlandishly funny satire as Velvet Buzzsaw.