Reel Talk: Death by art in Dan Gilroy’s ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’

Graphic by Natalie Bauer

If you’re one of the many modern art skeptics who looks at exhibits of paint splatters and wonders what the point is, then the 2016 prank at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art might be familiar to you.

Two high school students had their 15 minutes of fame after they put a pair of Burberry eyeglasses on the floor at the SFMOMA, drawing crowds of genuine admirers. The prank went viral, recharging the perpetual debate about what counts as art and from where it derives its value.

As a bizarre amalgamation of satire, comedy and horror, Dan Gilroy’s second feature film “Velvet Buzzsaw” makes a similarly snarky mockery of the art world. In the film, a gallery owner is awed by a pile of trash bags on the floor of a studio after mistaking it for a piece of art.

The artist’s response? “It’s not art,” he says curtly.

At its core, the film is a cautionary tale warning us of the dangers of commodifying art, but it is so encumbered with eye-roll inducing moments like this one that the message gets muddled along the way.

Set in a satirically outrageous and shallow rendition of the elite art world of Los Angeles, as evidenced by ridiculous character names such as Morf Vendewalt and Jon Dondon, the story begins its descent into horror when Josephina (Zawe Ashton), an assistant to the formidable gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), discovers thousands of paintings belonging to a recently deceased reclusive neighbor and steals them.

Josephina then enlists well-known and widely-feared art critic Morf (Jake Gyllenhaal) — who, incidentally, is her recently rekindled romantic flame — to help her and Haze put on an exhibit and push the pieces to buyers and museums.

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Soon, the mysterious artists’ work is the hot commodity of the LA art scene. Rival galleries, museums and buyers all clamor for his pieces, but not without consequence. The more we learn about the artist’s troubled past, the more bodies pile up, as a supernatural force animates paintings and sculptures to bring those overcome with greed to a gruesome end.

Inventive as this concept may be, the impact of Gilroy’s ambitious vision is dampened by a clumsy execution. Gyllenhaal is fantastic as always — his descent into some kind of madness is the only thing that keeps the film engaging in its latter half — while Toni Collette as his curator friend Gretchen is the most captivating of the ensemble.

The other characters, however, come off as stiff and lifeless caricatures, making the eye candy of the colorful aesthetic feel like it’s trying to compensate for an energy that’s lacking from the cast. The pacing is also bogged down by the inclusion of numerous unnecessary romances which confuse rather than enhance the story, a misstep that is endlessly irritating.

Despite these downfalls, the “Velvet Buzzsaw” is still an interesting counterpart to Gilroy’s first film “Nightcrawler,” which was released in 2014 and also stars Gyllenhaal and Russo. As bright and flashy “Velvet Buzzsaw” is, “Nightcrawler” is equally dark and grim, set almost entirely at night as it follows a stringer who films violent crimes to sell to broadcast news stations.

The former is set within a circle of taste-making elites while the latter focuses on a collection of nocturnal bottom feeders, but both explore how far people are willing to compromise ethics in the name of greed. They question what people find valuable, be it in journalism or in the art world.

If the takeaway from “Velvet Buzzsaw” is that art is valuable not because of its price in dollars but because of how it makes us feel, then certainly some will find much more in this film than I did. But what was almost a smart, inventive satire simply had one too many cringe-worthy moments for me, and it ultimately missed the mark.

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Rachael Diamond SC ’21 is a philosophy major. She enjoys ranting about movies to anyone who will listen.

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