The mysterious painter at the center of Velvet Buzzsaw is a parodic fantasy of a tortured creator. His works are vivid, frightening depictions of violence and tragedy; after the artist dies, his pieces are found stacked by the hundreds in his dank apartment, a treasure trove of torment for critics to puzzle over. The paint that the old man used is so thick, it seems to rise off the canvas, and his syphilitic-sounding sobriquet is Ventril Dease. “His name is the tinsel on the tree!” crows Rhodora Haze (played by Rene Russo), the dealer who gets her hands on the late Dease’s collection.
Velvet Buzzsaw, debuting Friday on Netflix, is the writer-director Dan Gilroy’s third film, and his latest to aim a satiric blunderbuss at a particular industry. Nightcrawler, released in 2014, was a nastily funny thriller set at a local-news station; 2017’s Roman J. Israel, Esq. was an embittered treatise on the systemic failures of the legal profession and the civil-rights movement. Gilroy’s new movie reunites the director with his Nightcrawler stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Russo. This time, they’re all making fun of the preening art scene, turning the story of Haze’s massive discovery into a bloody slasher film in which pretentious hangers-on get what’s coming to them.
Mocking the denizens of fine-art galleries is just about the easiest task available; the film’s characterization of the critics, dealers, and rival artists who stalk from exhibition to exhibition is as subtle as Zoolander’s take on the fashion world. The characters themselves feel like cartoons. Do Rhodora Haze and Ventril Dease sound like absurd names to you? Well, Gyllenhaal’s art critic is called Morf Vandewalt, while one of Haze’s employees goes by Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge). Gilroy largely makes the movie work by amplifying the ridiculousness, and then joyfully tossing his story into a horror-fantasy blender for the gory final act.
This is a world saturated with peacocking cynics, all of them maniacally trying to sniff out the next great find. Piers (John Malkovich), a living legend and a client of Haze’s, is creatively blocked, while the up-and-comer Damrish (Daveed Diggs) appears to be the hot new thing. But once Haze and her assistant Josephina (Zawe Ashton) stumble across the stash of Dease’s life’s work, all other clients are forgotten. Gilroy plumbs the comic depths of exploiting a trendy success: An agent named Gretchen (Toni Collette) basically blackmails a museum into staging a Dease show, while Haze drives up the price on each painting by claiming she only has a few in stock.
In Velvet Buzzsaw, art and commerce aren’t merely intertwined; they’re feeding off each other in unpredictable, dismaying ways. Could it be that Gilroy has a few complaints about the state of his own industry? Swap out some of the characters’ jobs, and Velvet Buzzsaw could really be parodying any creative field, where the debut of new work made without industry interference and with unbridled passion is seen as potentially paradigm-shifting. Morf, who has grown bored of installations that feature talking robots and humming metal spheres, is inspired to investigate the primal nature of Dease’s paintings; he quickly discovers a dark history that distresses him but that only further jacks up the prices.
The latter half of Velvet Buzzsaw is little more than a series of macabre art exhibits, an arrangement of outrageous set pieces in which Dease’s canvases come to life and slaughter people. Within Gilroy’s heightened world, this turn of events hardly seems peculiar; everyone’s reverence for the paintings runs so deep that it’s unsurprising when the objects are revealed to be semi-sentient. While Nightcrawler was about an ambulance-chasing journalist with an eye for ghoulish crime scenes, Velvet Buzzsaw takes that theatrical approach to goriness much further, staging a number of hilariously original (and quite gruesome) deaths for its star-studded ensemble.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to care one iota about these characters. A challenge of writing satire is that building up any real story stakes is difficult if no one involved feels like a human being. Only Gyllenhaal wrings some pathos from his role, with the jaded Morf turning against the commercial excesses of his industry as he learns more about Dease. But everyone else exists mostly as fodder for the chopping block, and the final 30 minutes become a bit of a chore as Gilroy tries to find inventive ways for stationary canvases to kill people. In the end, Velvet Buzzsaw is a pretty soulless piece of art about the soullessness of art; but that doesn’t mean it can’t have a little fun proving its point.