Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)
Rated R for violence, language, some sexuality/nudity and brief drug use
Score: 3 out of 5
Velvet Buzzsaw isn't quite as memorable as writer/director Dan Gilroy's breakthrough behind the camera, the superb thriller Nightcrawler. While both films have satirical intent on their minds, Velvet Buzzsaw opts to forego some of the more figurative cutting that Nightcrawler did in service of its sendup of the "if it bleeds, it leads" culture of TV news in favor of literally cutting up its cast of pretentious art-world pricks. And, in a way, that's kind of its secret weapon. At first glance, it wears the trappings of any number of "post-horror" indie arthouse horror films that are designed to make viewers wonder what the hell is going on in order to get them unsettled through fear of the unknown, putting them in a mindset where they're analyzing everything about the characters and their surroundings in order to look for some sort of subtext as to what the monster is and what it wants. In other words, it puts them into the shoes of its protagonist, the overly analytical art critic Morf Vanderwalt. And both he and viewers find themselves dropped into the world of what turns out to be a regular supernatural slasher flick, where the most obvious explanation for what is happening -- that the ghost of Vetril Dease, an artist who did not want his work taken and sold for profit, is coming after the people who violated his wishes -- turns out to be the most correct one. As such, it's operating on slasher movie logic, not post-horror logic, and once it pulls the rug out from under you and gets truly rolling, it shines.
Setting up the shift in tone required that the film spend much of the first act getting the audience primed for a more intellectual/pretentious version of itself that didn't actually exist. The greatest quality of the first act is the time spent with the characters, all of whom are, in true slasher spirit, people whose deaths the film wants you to cheer on. Morf Vanderwalt is a socially awkward man who makes his living looking for hidden meaning in the art that he and his colleagues deal in, often to the point of missing the forest for the trees. Rhodora Haze is a former punk rocker (the film's title comes from her band's name) turned owner of an art gallery who has long since sold out any countercultural ideals she may have had in favor of cold, hard cash. Everybody around them -- Rhodora's assistant Josephina, the curator Gretchen, the gallery worker Bryson, the rival gallery owner Jon -- is a venal sack of shit eager to make a buck off of Vetril Dease's art when they're not screwing each other both metaphorically and literally Only Natalia Dyer's assistant Coco and Daveed Diggs' street artist Damrish get any kind of sympathetic portrayal, and surprise surprise, they're among those who make it to the end. Beneath the surface-level glamour, these are slasher movie victims played by an A-list cast led by Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo as Morf and Rhodora, and the first act helped me get... well, not quite invested in them, since the goal of this movie was to make me want to watch them die, but certainly interested in seeing what horrible fates befall them.
In the context of the film, however, the first half felt a bit too padded for its own good, such that I and the group of friends I was watching this with wondered when the action would "really start". This is the flip side of the character development and pretensions towards arthouse horror that are set up here: in the movies that this film is imitating, all of that is ultimately the setup to a grueling climax in which all of Chekhov's guns, so carefully laid out on the mantlepiece before, are picked up and fired off right in the viewer's face. It may have instead been the setup to a great trick that the film played on its target audience, but in the process, it leaves the film to succumb to the "twenty minutes with jerks" problem that plagues so many horror movies, one in which the first act's character development is ultimately rendered meaningless, existing just to let us know who everybody is and how they're all related before the bodies start hitting the floor.
What Velvet Buzzsaw ultimately turns into is nowhere near as complex as the likes of The Babadook or Hereditary. Instead, it's a straightforward hack-and-slash where the angry ghost of a dead artist murders people in very impressive ways, using works of art as the murder weapons. Paintings come to life and pull their victims in, graffiti on the side of a building transforms into a room that ensnares someone, and one kill will undoubtedly render anybody with tattoos incredibly paranoid. It's not just bloody, it slashes with panache, Gilroy clearly relishing these sequences and coming up with both great ways to kill people and great ways to get it on camera. The clean, modern, brightly-lit aesthetic is unusual for a slasher, but what happens in those places removes any doubt that these characters are in for a world of hurt. This is one of the best-looking slasher movies I've seen in a long time, and even when the story was spinning its wheels, it was still interesting to watch.
The Bottom Line
Velvet Buzzsaw is not the sort of movie that it sells itself as in the trailer. It's as blunt in its satire as it is sharp in its aesthetics, and while its big trick compromises it on a storytelling level, it still delivers in terms of old-school slasher thrills. If you want a visually stylish little slice-n-dice, this is your ticket.