The Pitch: After biting his thumb at modern-day media with 2014’s Nightcrawler, writer and director Dan Gilroy re-teams with Jake Gyllenhaal to scorch the art industry by shifting gears from psychological thriller to straight-up horror. There are ghouls. There are guts. There are messages, to be sure. But there are stars. Plenty of them. In the past, Gilroy’s referenced Robert Altman as his inspiration for Velvet Buzzsaw, and he’s certainly followed suit, stocking this film with a gallery of all-stars that could rival The Player.
The Starry Night: As with any ensemble running on a glut of star wattage, Velvet Buzzsaw suffers from trying to keep ’em all entertained. Even at an exhaustive 113 minutes, and with a pacing that might prompt a cokehead to scream for Dramamine, the film can’t help but feel like a walking billboard of names. Iconic veterans such as Toni Collette and especially John Malkovich feel as if they were cast last minute, wedged into the film to either enliven a scare or chew on some themes. Even the principals are pressed for time.
It doesn’t help that everyone’s a Venice Beach-drawn caricature, particularly Gyllenhaal. Unlike his chilling performance in Nightcrawler, among his sharpest to date (and one that was cruelly ignored by the Academy), Gyllenhaal awkwardly toes the line between quirky and parody. As an in-demand art critic, he tends to lean hard on his goofball tendencies, arguably some of his weakest chops, and delivers an outlandish turn that’s about on par with his distracting role in 2017’s Okja. To be fair, that’s not entirely his fault.
Programmed Machines (Sealed): The issue is that Gilroy doesn’t know what type of movie he wants to make. On the surface, Velvet Buzzsaw presents itself as a horror movie — more on that in a second — but its dialogue suggests something more. So much of the back-and-forth between the film’s dozen characters stems from Gilroy’s conceit of trying to check off every theme he wants to say about art. Granted, he did the same thing with Nightcrawler and the media, but he also had characters that were human beings.
Because his cast is so inflated, every piece of dialogue comes off as either exposition to scotch-tape the narrative together or hammy revelations that are on par with going to the zoo and saying, “You know, these animals should be free.” His thoughts on the appropriation and capitalization of art are so direct he might as well have gone full neo-conceptual and just printed these ideas on canvas boards and saved everyone two hours and Netflix a few million bucks. It’s disappointing because he’s so much better than this.
American Gothic: That’s not to say the film isn’t gorgeous. Gilroy clearly has an eye for this scene, and his attention to detail in that regard is commendable. The extravagant estates, picturesque pavilions, and imaginative installations are all delectable to the eye. Having said that, his knack for horror could use some dusting off. All too often, he resorts to ’90s jump scares and early aughts CGI that are far less effective than, say, the more palpable horror that really works in the movie. You know, like the robot hobo.
The problem is that he needed to lean harder into the terror and let his punches actually draw blood. With the exception of a few scares, the set up, the style, and the execution in each of the horror sequences mostly opt for a PG-13 route, and not in an imaginative way. Had he gone Full Argento as opposed to Made For TV Craven, Velvet Buzzsaw might have at least passed for an enjoyable genre ride. Instead, it’s about as unnerving and horrifying as Cruel Intentions assumes it’s scandalous and explicit.
The Verdict: Disappointing and confounding, Velvet Buzzsaw can ultimately be filed under What Could Have Been given the kind of talent involved. Gilroy has certainly seen better days behind the typewriter, and his exhaustion is all over this movie. It’s in the three-second exterior shots that bookmark the 30-second scenes, or the way Natalia Dyer‘s screaming discoveries quickly go from a running joke to a lazy bridge. Sure, the concept itself is intriguing, but what does it matter when the narrative is so flimsy?
It’s a damn shame, too, given Gilroy’s personal ties to the project. Earlier this week, he told Entertainment Weekly it was his scrapped work on Tim Burton’s Superman Lives that prompted him to make Velvet Buzzsaw. “For a year and a half, 24 hours a day, we were all going full force,” he admitted, and then it was all over with nothing to show for it. He eventually came to terms with the loss on Santa Monica Beach, contending that, “Art is something I create for myself,” while drawing figures in the sand among the waves.
That image closes out Velvet Buzzsaw, and it’s arguably the most profound moment of the film. It’s a patient image that suggests rather than tells, and not surprisingly, that patience is at total odds with the film. But it’s also an image that gets at the core of the film, and while it hardly resolves the incongruences of what came before, it’s affecting in a haunting way. It lingers with you, proving that Gilroy, even at his most conflicted, still knows how to disarm his audiences. It’s not much, but it’s enough to want more from the guy.
Where’s It Playing? Velvet Buzzsaw premieres on Netflix on Friday, February 1st.