Reviews | Written by Paul Mount 08/02/2019

VELVET BUZZSAW

Netflix doesn’t have the most impressive slate of ‘original’ genre movies currently available on its exhaustive, all-conquering streaming service. For every Annihilation or Bird Box, there’s an Io, or an Extinction, or a How It Ends. Thankfully, the striking Velvet Buzzsaw, which reunites writer/director Dan Gilroy with Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo who starred in his 2014 thriller Nightcrawler, falls on the right side of Netflix’s dodgy quality divide. The film is a little schizophrenic – it’s two parts a biting satire on the vacuity of the modern art establishment and one part a visceral supernatural horror film – but it’s the oddly-hypnotic story of bizarre people with bizarre names in a bizarre world we’re not quite sure really exists but probably secretly hope does, even if we’re in no real hurry to become a part of it.

In the dazzlingly miasmic Los Angeles art scene, bisexual critic Mort Vandewalt (Gyllenhaal) finds himself in a relationship with his friend/agent Josephina (Ashton) who is in turn frustrated by her own faltering career working for tough-talking gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Russo), formerly a member of rock band Velvet Buzzsaw, whose name is commemorated by a tattoo on her neck. Josephina seizes the opportunity to advance her career and reputation when reclusive neighbour Ventril Dease is found dead, and she discovers that his apartment is packed with a massive cache of unseen paintings. Josephina shows them to Mort and Rhodora, and Dease’s work quickly becomes the talk of the art world; everyone wants a piece of Dease action. Morf’s research into Dease’s background uncovers a history of abuse, despair, violence and mental disorder. It soon becomes clear that Dease’s tormented life has somehow translated itself into his work and that everyone who comes into contact with his art is destined to meet a grisly – if colourful – end.

Velvet Buzzsaw is a quirky, angular little movie and yet it packs a curious punch despite its self-evident failings. The film is packed to the rafters with wonderfully over-the-top turns, from Gyllenhall’s camp Mort, Rene Russo’s spiky Rhodora and Toni Collete delivering, when required, another Hereditary-like bout of hysterics (which, in the circumstances here, are entirely justified) but the real honours go to the brilliant Zawe Ashton (you’ll have seen her on TV in Fresh Meat and Doctor Who) who is effortlessly sly, manipulative and ambitious, and yet still just about the only really remotely likeable character in a cast of tireless narcissists. Although the film eventually finds its horror teeth (even if it’s never quite as nasty as it could be) it sometimes seems as if Gilroy is more interested in his pastiche of the art world than in telling a horror story, and there’s an ambiguity in the narrative, certainly in relation to Dease’s paintings, which might frustrate those looking for rational explanations and moral justification. Velvet Buzzsaw is quite likely to irritate those with no patience for the shallow world it depicts but, in the end, the film works because it’s visually arresting, bold and audacious, gaudy, larger than life and, when it needs to be, studded with moments of agreeable, if slightly tongue-in-cheek, horror. Easel-y the best Netflix horror film in recent memory.

 

REVIEW: VELVET BUZZSAW | CERT:15 | DIRECTED: DAN GILROY | SCREENPLAY: DAN GILROY | STARRING: JAKE GYLLENHAAL, ZAWE ASHTON, RENE RUSSO, TONI COLLETTE, JOHN MALCOVICH, TOM STURRIDGE, NATALIE DYER | RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW (NETFLIX)