“What is with that cheesy organ music? And that casket! What color is that? Smog orange? Did they buy it on sale? Imagine having to spend eternity in THAT.” – Art snob to a friend as they arrive at a funeral service in “Velvet Buzzsaw.”
With a combination of bone-dry wit and blood-drenched horror, writer-director Dan Gilroy’s “Velvet Buzzsaw” skewers some of the most pretentious denizens of the art world you’d ever want NOT to meet — and does so with precision and flair and pitch-black humor.
This movie is like a head-on collision between MOMA and one of those “Final Destination” movies, with a twist straight out of an old Rod Serling “Night Gallery” episode, and who knew I even wanted to see something like that until Gilroy let loose with this nasty and deliciously twisted chiller?
Jake Gyllenhaal (Golden Globe-nominated for his role as an unethical stringer in Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” in 2014) is fantastically entertaining as one Morf Vandewalt, who seems to be the most influential art critic in the United States if not the world, and relishes in wielding his power and sticking his nose into the affairs of the gallery owners, employees and artists that circle around him as if he’s the Queen Bee.
With his oversized glasses and his carefully coordinated ensembles and his habit of propping his hand just beneath his chin as he regards a new work and then starts speaking as if dictating his review to himself, Morf is a puffed-up narcissist — but there’s also something endearing about this fellow, especially when he’s running like a puppy after the beautiful and clever art gallery assistant Josephina (Zawe Ashton) and bearing his heart and soul to her. (Why, he’s even thinking of leaving his boyfriend for Josephina. As they say on Facebook, it’s complicated.)
For the first 40 minutes or so, “Velvet Buzzsaw” is a pure satire of the art world, as we meet the likes of the immensely successful and powerful art gallery owner Rhodora Haze (the wonderful Rene Russo, Gilroy’s spouse, who also starred in “Nightcrawler”); the former curator Gretchen (Toni Collette), who is now advising wealthy clients on which multi-million-dollar piece to add to their collection; the up-and-coming street artist known as Damrish (Daveed Diggs), and the legendary and mercurial installation artist Piers (John Malkovich).
Nearly every John Malkovich performance features at least one great reading of a throwaway line. In “Velvet Buzzsaw,” he delivers that line — TO A DOG. And it’s great.
A visitor to Piers’ studio kneels down to observe a grouping of four Hefty-type garbage bags — three black, one white.
“This is remarkable,” says the visitor.
“That’s not art,” responds Piers.
The zinging continues throughout the film — but things take a decidedly creepy and ultimately deadly turn after an elderly man in Josephina’s building dies, and Josephina enters his apartment and discovers a treasure trove of paintings so original, so disturbing, so mesmerizing, that just about anyone who regards them is instantly transfixed and consumed.
Turns out the artist was one Vetril Dease, and let’s just say ol’ Vetril experienced some serious tragedy and trauma in his day, and apparently turned to his art in an effort to exorcise his demons.
Terrible things happen, but most of our self-absorbed characters continue to pursue their own agendas with little regard for anyone else, never missing an opportunity to take a jab at a rival. (When someone announces a change of career within the art world to a supposed friend, the friend replies, “Well how hilarious for you.” At the aforementioned funeral service for someone who has died unexpectedly, a “mourner” says, “He was his usual shallow self the last time we spoke.”)
Gyllenhaal’s Morf morphs, if you will, from a seemingly cliched devil-may-care caricature into a troubled and perhaps even tormented soul questioning everything from his work to his romantic choices to even larger and more disturbing concerns. He delivers Morf’s one-liners with meticulously calibrated precision — but he’s equally effective when Morf is in the depths of despair.
The great veterans such as Malkovich and Russo and Collette are as good as we’d expect them to be, while Daveed Diggs creates a memorable character with relatively little screen time and Zawe Ashton is blazingly strong as Josephina, who reveals different levels to her character as the plot — and the blood — thicken.
“Velvet Buzzsaw” has the kind of bite that leaves a mark.
Netflix presents a film written and directed by Dan Gilroy. Rated R (for violence, language, some sexuality/nudity and brief drug use. Running time: 109 minutes. Now showing on Netflix.