(SPOILERS) Oh dear. That’s two strike outs in a row for Dan Gilroy, following Roman J. Israel, Esq. And it all looked so rosy in the wake of Nightcrawler. For his third feature as helmer, Gilroy has offered up a skewering of the LA art world via a supernatural force exacting revenge for misuse of a deceased artist’s paintings. If that instantly carries with it an air of familiarity, like an extended X-Files episode that fails to hit its target, that’s entirely understandable. Velvet Buzzsaw wants to be as gaudily over the top as the title, but has to settle for not being all that incisive, smart or funny instead.
I wondered if Gilroy had seen Amicus portmanteau Vault of Horror (1973), mostly adapted from EC Comics’ Tales from the Crypt; in the final segment, Drawn and Quartered, Tom Baker’s painter is enabled (via a voodoo priest) to take revenge on those who cheated him of his rightful earnings; he paints their portraits, which he then mutilates, ensuring their demise. Here, the passing of the completely unknown Vetril Dease is seized upon by agent Josephina (Zawe Ashton) to further her career following a run-in with her employee Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo: Haze was once a member of the punk band of the title); in consort with Haze, she pretends she found them in a skip, ignoring the explicit instructions Dease (sounds lazily like disease) left that they be destroyed.
Naturally, his art becomes enormously popular, which is when those involved in trading or obtaining it start dropping dead. As one would expect from a horror tale, Dease has a dark history; he was sent to the Good Templars Orphanage following the deaths of his mother and sister; when he left, he tortured and murdered his father, and was sent to a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane that used inmates for medical experiments, injections, shocks, “God knows what else”; on his release he ended up as a janitor at a veterans home for 42 years, plying his talent in secret, with an emphasis on blood.
Gilroy’s laid down all the detail for a pseudo-science X-Files explanation if one wants one, then, of an insane man’s id-unleashed through dark experiments, but he’s made a film that, despite the trappings, isn’t remotely scary. Even the kills are pretty pedestrian: art coming alive and attacking people in fairly unimaginative ways (by hanging, by robot Hoboman exhibit, and a rather nano-tech-derivative suffusion by CGI paint). Haze’s end comes via her own Velvet Buzzsaw tattoo, having taken pains to empty her house of all artwork, but the only really memorable one is the most Grand-Guignol, in which an art curator (Toni Collette) has her arm severed by an exhibit (Gilroy was inspired by Roman Holiday, but I thought of Peter Duncan in Flash Gordon).
None of this is executed with much in the way of dread, build up or visceral panache. Gilroy compared his project to The Player, and it shares a similarly lackadaisical pace, at odds with its genre leanings, while also lacking that movie’s insider edge and satirical bite. The first fifteen minutes sprawls untidily as if Gilroy’s either forgotten how to grab the viewer or doesn’t care, content to arbitrarily introduce characters with no obvious sense of purpose of trajectory. And so it goes on, setting the tone for the rest of the movie, even once the from-beyond-the-grave justice plot is established.
Gilroy gets the best performances from returning collaborators, Gyllenhaal (OTT, but fortunately not Okja OTT) and missus Russo (suitably cool, calculating and conniving), and also Collette’s Gretchen; when she and Gyllenhaal get together, it’s momentarily a wonderfully OTT competition for who can go most OTT, as if they’re channelling the spirits of Richard E Grant and Sandra Bernhard, but alas, they only get a scene or two.
Ashton seems entirely miscast, one of those cases where an English actress has been drafted in, retaining her RP, and comes across as entirely wooden. Billy Magnussen has an annoyingly intrusive and extraneous role as gallery worker-cum-artist that might suggest a larger role left on the cutting room floor, in which case, I can’t say it’s a shame to have lost it. John Malkovich is an artist with painter’s block but is only worth remarking upon for surviving the movie (his final scene of doodles in the sand being washed away by the tide was the germ inspiration for the movie, in the wake of the aborted Superman Lives). Stranger Things’ Natalia Dyer plays an innocent who somehow escapes the wrath of Dease, I guess through not having tangibly got her hands dirty with his works.
The occasional scene manages to stand out: Rhodora arriving at Josephina’s apartment and effortlessly commandeering her representation of Dease; a marvellously chilly bit post-Gretchen’s death wherein it’s related to Rhodora how security guards thought her dismembered body was part of a new installation, so they just opened the gallery and let visitors in, with kids from a school tour duly stepping in her blood. These are fairly rare, though.
And, while there’s some decent barbed dialogue (“A bad review is better than sinking into the great glut of anonymity”; “We don’t sell durable goods. We peddle perception. Thin as a bubble”; “All art is dangerous, Mort”; disrespectful funeral talk – “That casket. What colour is that? Smog orange? Did they buy it on sale?”) it only takes one stinker to sink the ship; “We’ve got a fucking problem. Literally” is literally a line mid-coitus. NotGilroy’s best writerly move.
So, alas, we can add Velvet Buzzsaw to the increasing pile of Netflix movies that have given a director carte blanche, only for the uninhibited director to then deliver something less than scintillating. I’m not ensorcelled.
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