Peeking through the guise of a comedic satire, “Velvet Buzzsaw” reveals its true colors as a horror film. The film’s attempt at creating a snarky Los Angeles art landscape merely serves as a backdrop for the film’s weirder developments. All bits of shock, suspense and thrill would have been intriguing had they not all been revealed in the official two-and-a-half minute trailer nearly a month prior to release.
In terms of visual pleasure, the expectations for an art centered film were met. The film parades a high appreciation for pieces that are all cut down to plot devices and developing MacGuffins. The very first scene of the film portrays the stereotypical perception of snooty art critics and connoisseurs as they peruse the Haze gallery, owned by industry mogul Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo). Within the gallery are many works that become relevant later either as gags or methods of death.
At the gallery and after party, the audience is introduced to the entirety of the relevant cast. They all bear previous relationships and character dynamics, which are tirelessly explained throughout the course of the film. The cast is impressive but an overall burden, requiring heavy character development that is not totally accomplished. The overabundance of characters challenges the progression of the film in favor of character developments that are irrelevant to the greater plot.
The film’s primarily lead — art critic Morf Vandewalt — is played by Jake Gyllenhaal, whose performance is especially entertaining for his particular mannerisms that play into the stereotype. However, the development of his character is often outshined by members of the supporting cast. Though Morf is the only character to have a definitive progression, it is the actions of the supporting cast that further the plot.
The inciting action is not one taken by Morf but is rather a discovery made by Haze’s secretary, Josephina (Zawe Ashton), who finds an abundance of art in the apartment of her recently deceased neighbor, Ventril Deas. After consulting Morf, Josephina claims the discovery and reaps the reward by partnering with Haze to sell the art. The remainder of the film details the consequences, both literal and figurative, of her discovery.
The film begins to shy away from the comedy and quickly transitions into the horror genre when the discovered Deas works begin causing damage. It is later learned, through investigation by several characters, that Deas was a troubled man with a dark past. His art seemed to express and project this darkness. Any scene containing a Deas piece becomes more visually involved with the art creating odd movements and haunting figures. Eventually the pieces begin to construct physical manifestations that plague those who seek to profit from the art, leading to the deaths of several characters.
The one note the film accomplishes in flying colors is the use of satire through the lens of greed. The entire plot feeds on the greed of individual characters. Most of the characters who perished were, in some way, purposefully profiting off of the ill-obtained art. Specifically Josephina and Rhodora were targeted. The karmic swing of their fates is sweet justice to those who tried to cheat their way into success; the method of death for each victim is in some way a foreshadowed instance from their own past.
Though conceptually thrilling, “Velvet Buzzsaw” is sloppily executed as there is no real explanation as to who or what is the villain. Though the audience sees physical manifestations appear, the film doesn’t lean into the supernatural presence and personify a villain. It rather leaves the plot unresolved in several places. Even if the film’s intent is to show the villainy within the greedy characters, the story does not spare Morf who, in the end, understood the significance of the Deas works and attempted to destroy the works as originally intended. Even though Morf did not truly gain from the works and served as the only remorseful character, he is still targeted and killed.
The potential for the film was far ahead of the product released. Many problems plague the story and furthering of plot. Character dynamics were too heavily focused above servicing the already strained plot. The stacked cast competed for limited screen time and eventually held roles that widely ranged from plot-hindering to plot-absent. The concept overall did not hold up strongly enough to a questioning audience.