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Velvet Buzzsaw (Sundance Movie Review)

Velvet Buzzsaw (Sundance Movie Review)
5 10

PLOT: A pompous critic (Jake Gyllenhaal), an art dealer (Rene Russo) and her ambitious assistant (Zawe Ashton) profit from the work of a deceased artist, but their success comes at a high price.

REVIEW: VELVET BUZZSAW is nothing if not unique. It’s an utterly bizarre film that could have only ever been made for a streamer like Netflix, in that it’s a total exercise in style but also utterly slight - it’s a far cry from the stylish, twisted trailer that had people buzzing a few weeks ago. If you’re expecting a horror film or anything even remotely frightening, think again - this is occasionally silly fun but not much more.

Writer-director Dan Gilroy evokes minor Robert Altman in his goofy depiction of the L.A. art world, with this portraying them as utterly vacuous and self-obsessed. Of them, Jake Gyllenhaal probably fares the best as the pompous art critic, playing the part as high camp. There’s never a moment where he’s not chewing the scenery, but it works within the vibe of the film. By contrast, Rene Russo seems almost too reasonable as the queen of the art world much of the film revolves around, with her more grounded performance not quite meshing with the camp vibe the others take.

It takes quite a while for the horror elements to kick in, but when they come they feel unnecessary. The idea here is that the characters stumble upon the work of a deceased artist with a dark past, with his work carrying a kind of curse that wreaks bloody havoc on anyone who profits from it. However, the mystery involving the artist feels inconsequential and merely a way to work in a bit of carnage to mesh-up the genres in what’s meant to be a provocative way. VELVET BUZZSAW would have been more effective as pure satire, as Gilroy doesn’t seem to have an affinity for this genre. There’s never a moment where VELVET BUZZSAW is chilling, and in the last act when the film asks us to take the whole thing relatively seriously, it falls apart.

That said, VELVET BUZZSAW does have a few things going for it. Gilroy definitely knows how to make Los Angeles feel like a living, breathing character, although the photography by Robert Elswitt isn’t quite as avant-garde as his work on NIGHTCRAWLER. The film also has a few funny moments, such as a grim, running gag involving “Stranger Things”’s Natalia Dyer, while Zawe Ashton is a scene-stealer as the cutthroat, ambitious dealer looking to strike it rich.

It’ll be interesting to see how audiences react when this hits Netflix, but it’s hard not to imagine the same people that posted about the trailer on social media will feel somewhat cheated by the bait and switch. By the same token though, it’s not hard to imagine a cultish audience embracing it. It’s not for everyone (including me), but I’m sure there are some folks that will like it, although don’t expect this to become another viral sensation for the streamer.

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