Dan Gilroy knows creeps. His film Nightcrawler is both one of the most unsettling films of the 2010’s and also the kind of comfort movie that plays whenever I’m home sick. Paired with Jake Gyllenhaal, there’s a certain magic bullet that hit a moving target. That target is comedy horror, or comedy thriller, which it just so happens is goddamned hard to do right. Or, if not right, to at least land jokes buried in darkness, for most of your audience. Nightcrawler showed that Gilroy could infuse some on-the-nose schtick with enough style, talent, and twists to elevate the story of a sociopath that we want to love and kill, in equal measure. Velvet Buzzsaw is not that movie. Velvet Buzzsaw is instead an attempt to be all movies. Or maybe no movies, but decidedly nothing in between.
The new Netflix release follows an ensemble cast, who represent every corner of the high-art world in Los Angeles. An up-and-coming art agent (Zawe Ashton) is dating a blowhard art critic (Gyllenhaal), but can’t seem to meet the needs of her eccentric boss (Rene Russo). They intermingle at various shows and house parties with other artists (John Malkovich), sellers (Toni Collette), collectivists (Daveed Diggs), and assistants (Natalia Dyer, Billy Magnussen). The entire first act of the film is one long series of connected moments, meant to hammer home that everyone here is unlikable. It’s a real difficult launch. The line between making fun of insufferable characters and being simply insufferable is difficult to parse, over such a large chunk of time.
The up-and-coming agent gets the break of a lifetime when her elderly upstairs neighbor dies, and it turns out he has an apartment filled with crazy, spooky paintings. She does the normal thing and steals all of these clearly haunted canvases, and suddenly we’re in a completely different movie.
This Robert Altman-esque industry-wide ensemble satire evolves into a creature that’s half its original universe and half pastiche of the entire horror genre. Velvet Buzzsaw stays almost entirely rooted in tension, but the tone varies wildly scene to scene. A random number generator-esque feeling to the plot only adds to the mystery of what might happen next. Certain exchanges between characters feel so predictable that I was shouting lines just before they happened. Then, just as suddenly, it would seem as if all the rules of the universe would break. Followed by a five minute stretch of sequences, wherein all the characters simply shout plot twists about interpersonal secrets, at each other.
It is soap opera mixed with both the highest and lowest brow moments possible, of an entirely separate genre. It is delightful garbage, that has an impenetrability built into its DNA. Phantasmagoric, without a hint of drifting into a dreamlike state. This is All About Eve, by way of Nightmare on Elm Street. Either that sounds like your perfect film or the worst thing you’ve ever seen. And I promise you, it can be both.
It’s a structural mess. There are too few deaths to be straight horror and too many deaths to be taken seriously. The characters are filler for filler’s sake, but every performance is absolutely captivating. And if the syntax here is beginning to sound obnoxious, that’s because this is the trap Velvet Buzzsaw is designed to spring on you. To discuss it requires that you become as insufferable as anyone inherent in the film. It has no clear thesis or message, but it feels like one must exist, so there’s an immediate post-watch need to figure out “what did we just see?” And if you try to speak about it on film school terms, you’re just gonna come off as a bigger art-prick than Gyllenhaal’s ode to art-pricks. Which is saying something. It is a film that actively does not want to be picked apart. It does not want your discussion and it does not invite criticism. It is the anti-Ratatouille.
So yeah. I think it’s pretty good. Maybe it’s best left at that.