Netflix has opened 2019 hurling fastballs with original content, presumably looking to take advantage of the cold weather keeping consumers indoors and the movie theater summer boom still being a few months away. With that, we have seen acclaimed directors like Dan Gilroy, and more recently Steven Soderbergh with High Flying Bird (2019), release films on the platform, along with the plethora of television series being rolled out on a weekly basis. Velvet Buzzsaw, the third film from writer/director Gilroy, paints the picture of art criticism for its viewers. Set in contemporary Los Angeles, the film has a very clean look to it, stylized in similar fashion to Gilroy’s 2014 picture Nightcrawler (2014). Unlike that film, however, Velvet Buzzsaw doesn’t cohere to a compelling narrative. Instead, Gilroy features many excellent performances from some of our favorite actors, but unfortunately burdens them with overly-pretentious and wordy dialogue and sprinkles in terrifying deaths in an attempt to hold the viewer’s interest.
Velvet Buzzsaw is at its worst when it showcases an actor going on a long soliloquy about the art world that the story attempts to dissect. Much of the banter is poorly written, not to mention largely incomprehensible to 90% of the population. For this reason, the first thirty minutes of this movie are incredibly tough to sink into. However, in the second act the film suddenly tries to become a horror movie, with a lot of similarities to the Final Destination franchise. None of this works, either. All of the film’s deaths are played for shock horror and they all come off as wildly cheesy and comical.
The performances are all very in tune with the tone Gilroy is going for and he is able to somewhat elevate this convoluted mess of a movie with its stellar cast. The marketing has shown this to be a vehicle for Jake Gyllenhaal, but in reality this is more of an ensemble film. Experienced actors like Rene Russo, Toni Collette and John Malkovich all eat up their limited screen time. Gyllenhaal’s performance is one that could be a point of contention, however. He is really over-selling it here, leaning heavily into the quirky and weird tone of the movie. It is an acting choice that has seemingly defined the last few years of his career with the likes of Nightcrawler (2014), Nocturnal Animals (2016), Okja (2017), and The Sisters Brothers (2018). His overly-exaggerated acting certainly fits Gilroy’s vision, but with Velvet Buzzsaw, that’s not necessarily a good thing.
There are a few shining moments sprinkled throughout the film, like when it gives a platform to Malkovich, Collette or Russo and lets them cook for a few minutes. Still, the dialogue is written in a manner that is both perplexing and endlessly frustrating, but the actors are so oddly charming that you can’t help but be somewhat entranced by it. Along with this, the movie has some interesting points to make about the idea of art criticism and how it can be both beneficial and detrimental to the medium. At different moments this is played both with sincerity or as satire. The movie has so much on its mind and tries to blend so many different tones that it ultimately crumbles under the weight of its ambitions. Like its fellow early-2019 trainwreck Serenity, Velvet Buzzsaw will be remembered as somewhat of a glorious disaster.