Dan Gilroy and Robert Elswit’s 2014 film, Nightcrawler, is a slow-burn hyper-focused character study of the degradation of one man’s psyche that most likely wasn’t that stable to begin with, as he delves deeper and deeper into the Los Angeles 24 Hour News Cycle. Gilroy’s dedication to his highly unlikable character and the damage that his actions cause to those around him is reflected in Elswit’s dark, grimy, and absolutely lived-in vision of the underside of L.A. nightlife. After a film like their most recent collaboration, Velvet Buzzsaw, its impossible to not help but feel a little bit betrayed. Everything about Buzzsaw feels like an antithesis, a step backward, from the masterful Nightcrawler.
With the talent and premise behind Velvet Buzzsaw, there was bound to be something more worthwhile than what we got. Its heartbreaking to realize, while writing this review, that there’s hardly anything about the film that feels earned. Velvet Buzzsaw feels like the kind of film that a filmmaker would make before they released something as patient and studied as Nightcrawler upon the world. Where Nightcrawler is bitter and cutting in its satire, Buzzsaw is cheap, and flimsier than a wet cocktail napkin. When Nightcrawler is atmospheric and visually absorbing, Buzzsaw’s visuals are easy to dismiss, or downright unappealing to look at.
Velvet Buzzsaw is the story of a group of artists, critics, and curators inside the Los Angeles modern art scene. When the paintings of an undiscovered artist are found inside his apartment after he dies, these characters find their way of life haunted and completely flipped upside down by the ghost of artist. Throughout the film, their own greed, ego, or perfectionism becomes their downfall at the hands of living art, seeking vengeance, or at least something similar to that. Honestly, I’m not sure what the ghost is after.
The most obvious flaw is Buzzsaw’s total lack of a character to follow. Gilroy continues to dive into stories about people who are wholly unlikable, but even in Nightcrawler, there was a sense of humanity behind Louis Bloom’s persona. This was accomplished through Gilroy’s dedication to the character, his quest to flesh out this monster, to expose him to the light, even if we never fully understood or sympathized with him. There are so many characters (with increasingly absurd names) in Velvet Buzzsaw, you would be forgiven for completely forgetting that such major players as Toni Collette, Daveed Diggs, and John Malkovich gave their time to appear in this movie. They have little more than glorified cameos, and to add insult to injury, their characters tend to be more interesting than the ones who get the most attention.
The characters that do happen to get the most screen-time are vapid cardboard cutouts who spout easy one liners about the hypocrisy of art buying culture that aims for the lowest hanging fruit possible. I understand that its Gilroy’s intent was to create absurdly self-absorbed people, but he’s shown that he’s capable of doing a much better job of it before. Most of the characters in Velvet Buzzsaw simply exist, walking in and out of frame every now and then to casually remind us that they’re part of the story too.
The unfocused story not only wrongs the actors, but the entire mythology around the unknown artist and his mysterious paintings. The film would rather focus on the drama and insider politics of the bubble these characters live in than really give anyone drawn in by the exciting prospects of the horror elements of the premise anything to chew on. A delightfully macabre backstory is given the beginnings of a fleshed out narrative before being tossed aside for backstabbing and relationship woes. Even the schlockiest of slasher trash films do a better job of creating engaging characters that we actually want to see die in increasingly creative ways.
It’s also apparent from the very start that Velvet Buzzsaw has a deep misunderstanding of what makes appealing horror work. There are a couple of moments of genuine spookiness, like when we are introduced to the interior of the artist’s apartment, and the film briefly abandons the white glossy sheen of its art world for a creaking, dirty, Gothic look, which incidentally is the only set piece in the film that is visually pleasant to look at. The rest of the time, the film can’t help but feel like a movie that is trying desperately to be something that it is not.
The amount of wasted potential in Velvet Buzzsaw is astounding and I even feel guilty for disliking it. It’s like Gilroy is daring his critics to compare themselves to the shallow Morf Vandewalt, scoffing at every painting he comes across. Well, perhaps that is my fate, as I’m forced to roll my eyes at this disappointing portrait, moving on in the gallery, leaving Velvet Buzzsaw to its fate of forever hanging on the walls of Netflix for an eternity, while every now and then a casual passer by may discover it.