Velvet Buzzsaw fails to fit into comedy or horror

By KATHARINE LEE | February 7, 2019

GAGE SKIDMORE/CC BY-SA 2.0 Natalia Dyer stars as Coco in Netflix’s new movie Velvet Buzzsaw.

Velvet Buzzsaw, the latest comedy-horror film to air on Netflix, is a savage jab at the modern art community’s apparent descent into depravity. While an elevator pitch for the film sounds great — art comes to life and torments those who have let their greed exploit art — Velvet Buzzsaw turned out to be a nearly two-hour comedy-horror feature berating the culture surrounding modern art with no laugh-out-loud comedy and no hide-under-the-covers horror.

Velvet Buzzsaw follows the rapid unravelling of the lives of several members of the art community. The real story starts when Josephina (Zawe Ashton) discovers her dead neighbor Vetril Dease’s (Alan Mandell) collection of beautiful but bloodcurdling art. Despite Vetril’s strict instructions for the art to be destroyed upon his death, Josephina plots to display and sell the art with her boss Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo). 

Dease’s art becomes an overnight sensation, and a whole crew of characters gets tangled up in his dark work. There’s Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal), a merciless art critic whose interest in modern art is rekindled by Dease’s work; Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge), a gallery owner plotting to use Dease’s dark history to undermine his competition; and Gretchen (Toni Collette), a cunning curator who plans to use Dease’s art as leverage to further her own agenda. All is going well for these successful, albeit devious, figures in the art community until they start getting killed by art that Dease’s murderous spirit has possessed.

While at first glance this movie doesn’t sound like a comedy, it really ended up being closer to satire than horror. Director and writer Dan Gilroy is clearly using his latest work to vent his own frustrations with the modern art community. His main message is pretty obvious: Greed and corruption are getting in the way of art. I say this is obvious because Gilroy kills off any character in the film who does not genuinely appreciate the art they’re profiting from.

Gilroy also makes a point to show the blatant disconnect between artists and those benefiting from their art. On a visit to renowned artist Piers’ (John Malkovich) studio, curator Jon Dondon mistakes a pile of trash for an art piece. While humorous, this mistake is actually quite the comment on how most of us don’t really know what art is anymore. We only know to value what we are told is valuable. 

Gilroy’s commentary on the corrupt commercialization of art is most certainly hammered home when the characters profit from the most gruesome of things: death. This first happens when Vetril Dease dies and Josephina discovers and sells his art, and the second time is when a dead body is mistaken for an installation and Josephina seems genuinely enthused about the traffic it’s bringing to the Dease exhibit. The discomfort we feel when characters benefit from murder seems to parallel how uncomfortable we should feel when the same characters benefit from a much more subtle tragedy: the abuse of art. 

Despite the compelling commentary on the soulless deterioration of the art world, Velvet Buzzsaw falls a little flat on its delivery. It’s almost two hours of the same premise: Art is dying, and the people at fault suck in most respects. There is no development or revelation that we get from watching the whole movie. In fact, the only reasons to finish the movie are to hone your distaste for the characters, to grow even more apathetic to Morf and Josephina’s forced relationship and then to finally rewatch the death scenes we already saw in the trailer. 

On the horror front Velvet Buzzsaw also disappoints. The first major flaw with this horror movie is the striking lack of horror. The death scenes are brief, uninvolved and almost cut short. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve watched all the thrill there is in this supposed thriller. The second biggest flaw is the inconsistency and almost irrelevancy of the sinister spirit to the film. The formidable and mysterious supernatural force that torments the characters is never really explored. We’re given a dark backstory to the deceased artist that just seems to tick all of the cliché boxes for the sake of ticking them (like an abusive family, a mental asylum and being subjected to illegal drug tests), and there is no tie-in to why this artist’s work would manifest in a vengeful force that targets art curators of all people. It seems the horror part of the film was clumsily thrown together just for the premise of killing people in the art industry. 

There are so many unanswered questions. Did Dease also die at the hand of his art? Is it his spirit that haunts the paintings? If so, then why demand they be destroyed in his will?

The mysterious force’s abilities are also just ambiguous enough to fluctuate from scene to scene so that Gilroy can deliver a number of creative art homicides. These abilities include, but are not limited to, bringing art to life and out of the frame, allowing Dease’s apparitions to kill people and creating a number of deadly illusions such as fake galleries that characters are tricked into entering. 

There is also very little logic or consistency in how the characters are affected. Morf, for example, is the only character who is tortured with hallucinations even though he, of all the art-abusing characters, seems to be the most redeemable.

Even though Velvet Buzzsaw lacks the gore and terror I had hoped for, the overall idea of art being the killer is poetic. Art itself takes revenge on the people who only see art as a means of personal gain.

At the end of the day, Velvet Buzzsaw accomplishes what it sets out to do. The only problem is that it didn’t set out to do very much. While nice in theory, the comedy-horror duality gets in the way of itself. The horror is undermined by our inability to be scared for characters that are made to be so disagreeable, and the satire is overlooked because we are too caught up in the vague and ultimately unrelated explanation behind the art-possessing bloodthirsty spirit. 

As the credits rolled by, I was left feeling kind of unsatisfied. We never learnt enough about any of the characters to care where the plot took them, especially because the plot, apart from mainly working up to a 15-minute killing spree, is a handful of petty disputes that are never fully developed or resolved. So unless this movie is like the modern art Gilroy is so boldly trying to save and I am just another ignorant critic who has missed the point (now doomed to die at the hands of a vindictive art-avenging spirit), I would take a pass on Velvet Buzzsaw.

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